I’m past it now, the major nervous part of it all. I’m past the wondering and the digging. I’ve almost accepted it.
I grew up online. From the days when I would wait all day for a demo to download from Happy Puppy, just to have my connection interrupted by my mom trying to make a phone call. I ran e-feds, hosted GeoCities sites and toyed around with Netbus on ICQ. I grew up online.
Now, as I wait for the good-feels that come with every like and thumbs-up, I wonder about the decades of data I put out there. Not just because I’m positively infatuated with Mr. Robot, either. For the last 5 years or so, I’ve become more and more invested in learning about online security. With that interest, I’ve also become more and more interested in protecting myself. They’re hand in hand: find out about the shadows, seek the light.
Over the last 4 weeks, I’ve tried to put some things in place to protect my privacy online. Interestingly enough, even typing that out generates the same question inside my own head, if only by repetitious social training, that I am constantly asked when the topic comes up;
What do you have to hide?
So, over the past couple weeks, I’ve signed up for a VPN, gotten my primary email off of big-data servers and tried as I could to trim down my Facebook profile by removing all of my ‘liked’ pages, eliminating as much information as possible and untagging myself from everything. Interesting, how that process is designed to make us feel strange about it. Like unplugging from that digital share-world is somehow ejecting us from some social circle. We’re not with the cool kids anymore.
There are elements of my digital past that I’m not proud of – certain affiliations that ‘past-pr0l3’ thought it would be cool to mill around with. Lost forum accounts and usernames from years past. There are words typed out from younger-me that I’ll never be able to delete; they’re linked to accounts with old, expired email addresses that I couldn’t access if I tried. Those words, those thoughts and opinions and sometimes foolish misrepresentations of the person I am now are out there, evermore.
That is, in it’s own way, a terrifying thing. If I’m having a conversation with someone, the best I can do is to lie to everyone else by simply denying what I said. After all, that’s got to be my right. On the internet, if I forget the credentials or otherwise lose access to the means by which I originally put the data out there, it’s there until the server shuts down (you know, forever.) Decisions we make online can be static. That’s a really new development in human interaction. There’s no ‘telephone game’ effect with spoken stories, it’s there, from our fingertips (provided it’s not somebody acting as me online, which brings to mind another entire problem with digital stuff and PERSEC) to the outside world, for keeps.
Recently, I stumbled on a video that I had forgotten all about. It was filmed, chopped up and put online by a version of myself from the past who thought it was funny. Older and wiser, I don’t really find it to be so anymore and, from what I can tell, I’ve taken it offline in every place it was uploaded. I’ll never know if past-me made the call to hide it somewhere else, until it bites me in the ass. That’s the scary part – in it’s infinite and ever-expanding servers, the internet can hide bits of ourselves even from us. We’ve been delicately groomed to over-share, a generation told that we’re special and that the world should know about us. Sometimes, I wonder what’s going to happen when my son finds some of these old posts, goes digging through usernames linked to me as a 13-year-old troll.
Nevermind the obvious. Or, how about that crazy idea that, when we hear about it in TED talks or in Reddit threads, we (read: I) try so desperately to push down into the ‘ignore’ folder in our minds. Think about the idea that a major company, any one of them that have controlled the big websites for years now, can mathematically create a profile for you. How about we take your search history, location data, email information, past purchases on Amazon and public-facing social media opinions to craft a careful little outline of who exactly you are. That, my online friends, barely scratches the surface of what’s possible with all the data we spew onto company servers, willingly, in search of the dopamine release that comes with one more heart from an Instagram follower.
A ramble, for sure. I’m not suggesting that a bit of black tape over your laptop webcam will fix everything for your personal privacy when it comes to activities online, but let that strip of tape be a metaphor. We’ve gone from kids who used to say “none of your beeswax” when we had a secret in mind, to keyboard warriors who put secrets in DM’s on Twitter. It might be too late for us, really. We’ll never reclaim everything we’ve put out there, but we have an opportunity to put filters in place. We can opt-out of the pervasive privacy-smashing machine that has been put in place, but after all, we probably won’t.