How much can you find out about me?

12 days to goThere's been some rumbling recently in blogging-land (see end of the article around how much private information people seem to be willing to share using the interweb, especially on MySpace (which I don't use). There seems to be the perception that Big Brother is just around the corner (if not having arrived already) ... I'm not so sure that's true but I don't know what to base that on ... I need to think harder about it.

Flickr: past, present or future?As you know I touched upon the nastier side of life with my Flickr photo's. That experience hasn't, however, stopped me thinking that life online is fundamentally safe - and that's the prime issue, safety. Is it safe from physical harm, safe from mental harm and safe from financial harm? And that safety should encompass not just myself but all those that are somehow "connected" to me and the content I put up.

For instance - if I put up a picture of someone on my publicly available photo album will that person be safe from idiots, nasty people and plonkers (be they private people, organisations or government agencies)? Will they be able to go about their day-to-day business in exactly the same manner with exactly the same degree of freedom and safety as if I hadn't put up the photo? I believe that they can ... if I use a degree of access control.

And it's access control that is probably the key element. Before I make an item publicly available I ask myself the following question:
  • "Is this my story to tell (am I in the picture, did I write the article, is this about me)?"
    YES: Probably publish (if I think I or anyone else will ever be interested)
  • Is this 'story' available elsewhere (is it on another site, is it in the papers, is it being send round by email ...)
    YES: Review the reasons for publishing
  • Did I get explicit permission to make it public?
    YES: Review carefully the reasons for publishing
  • NO TO ALL: This isn't mine to publish publicly
Access control comes in many ways (none of which I believe are fool proof and we all have to accept a degree of "people break the law and steal stuff" and, "accidents happen") - here's my list from 'most private' to 'totally public' - I keep content on ...
  • not a computer (write it down, remember it)
  • a non-networked device (USB doo-whackey etc) - only I can see and/or edit the content
  • a PC - only I should be able to see and/or edit the content
  • a shared PC - only those with that PC login should ... see/edit the content
  • a secure LAN (typically a home or office network) - only those with a network login and given rights should ... see/edit
  • a Website that only I can access (User ID) - only I should be able to see and/or edit the content
  • a Website that only registered users can access (User ID) - only those with specific Website logins should ... see/edit
  • a Website that I can grant others access depending on a role - only those with Website roles (i.e., "friend", "family") should ... see/edit
  • a public Website that anyone can read - anyone can ... see
  • a public Website that anyone can amend (collaboration) - anyone can ... see/edit
The first one is my prime source of nearly all my information - I just don't stick it in electronic form. Most, if not all, of my "personal" stuff isn't on a computer. I may have shared it with some friends and family as you do ... but generally I don't really, totally "life online" and it's a shared/public side you all get to see.

Once I do decide to store it electronically I rarely use options 2-5 ("life on-line" and all that) but use all others with the last one being the ultimate letting go. This I try not to let that happen unless I am absolutely sure around the "is it mine" and absolutely sure "is it safe", but I'm not perfect.

There is, however, an extra dimension to think about once you move electronically especially with the interweb (but watch out, your PC will become more and more a part of a/the network and you can't rely on not being on the interweb). The "Big Brother" being spoken about is not just, "Can someone find a picture of me?" but, "Can they find a picture of me and combine it with my address?" That's where the power (both useful and abusive) of the content connections may come from.

Examples - if someone can see a picture of Jack, find out how old he is, what his movements are and where he lives then he is probably no longer safe. But, also, if someone can find out where I live, who my friends are and the habits of their children they are probably not safe. Combining my information (via "friend") to other information may be how someone else's safety is compromised.

Of course governments have been trying to do this for years using surveillance, letter opening, phone tapping and the like. If we know it's going on (it is, of course, "in the best interests of the country" ... maybe) then we're mostly happy for it to happen ("in the best interests ..."). People use the lazy excuse, "If you've nothing to hide then what have to worry about" to which I answer, "Who knows? Me, that's who ... and no-one else should know".

This leads me to a separate issue - right to privacy. This isn't the same as "safety" - no-one should ever have their safety compromised be others. Privacy issues are many and varied and I don't feel educated enough to really go there. All I know about my own stuff is that it's generally "my story and therefore only up to me to tell it" (even if I do tell/share more than most it still my decision) and I pass that courtesy on to others. I don't (as Liz will tell you) hold much truck with the crappy gossip/celebrity magazines or reality TV shows that make a living on the completely opposite premise.

And one last thing - you should not just think about the here and now but think about the future. Most employers, for instance, do a search on your name before hiring you - what will they find that you wished they hadn't? Be careful about slagging off past employers, being nasty to ex-partners and never commit in writing stupid things like threats, insults or intimidation - in fact, if you are gonna do that write it down and save employers the hassle of hiring you!

It's all about me!
Anywho - safety, my safety. How safe am I? I think I'm fairly safe and people can't really find out that much about me in electronic form - but how right is that? Can I (or you) find all/some the following:
  • My full name
  • My birth date
  • My current home address
  • My contact details (email address, phone numbers)
  • My work details
  • My financial details (what's my bank, how much do I have in it/them?)
But that's me ... what about the following, who are they and what can we find out about them:
  • My immediate and extended family
  • My friends
  • My work colleagues
  • Any other people that are in my life
I will get back to you in a few days and tell you what I've found and how - but please, give it a whirl yourself, what is my full name, how old am I, where do I live?


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