Make me paranoid
June 20, 2010 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Why should I be concerned about privacy?

I have a general feeling that I don't want everybody knowing everything about me, but I've never set down to codify why. I'm not sure what it is that somebody would do with information about me. I'm not rich, and I don't have any arch-enemies or stalkers that I would ever know about. Nobody should generally be concerned about my existence, yet I'm still filled with general unease about what I post to websites. Is there something I should be worried about? Are there good examples of people's whose privacy has been abused outside of identity theft? Is there a reason I should be worried about what my ISP can track? Any examples of the downfalls of feeding my data into "the beast" would be very helpful in controlling my paranoia.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.

From NYTimes
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 4:19 PM on June 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

anonymous: I'm not rich, and I don't have any arch-enemies or stalkers that I would ever know about.

Not yet.
posted by mkultra at 4:26 PM on June 20, 2010

I am not a stickler for web privacy -- something that's occasionally caused me problems, including some guy who went around the internet associating me professional with some personal health information that wasn't really meant to be splashed around the internet -- and I probably should care more about it than I do.

But if you're wondering why many people do worry about these things, think about it this way -- have you ever posted anything to the web you'd be embarrassed to say in a job interview? Well, if your future employers google you first, you may as well have.

There are also issues of identify theft, and such, if you're concerned about the kind of discrete data you provide to various websites.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:27 PM on June 20, 2010

Previously, previously.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:49 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

have you ever posted anything to the web you'd be embarrassed to say in a job interview? Well, if your future employers google you first, you may as well have.

This is number one issue for me. I know people who google before hiring and the things they use to decide who not to interview are pretty random ('he posted once on a wikipedia talk page, I'm not going to interview him', etc). I found a genealogy site posting my full birth details meaning my age is very easily google-able, opening me right up to age discrimination (which is totally relevant to my occupation and current qualifications). But then I work in a field where professional reputation is somewhat important. Example: someone uses this username elsewhere to give quack advice about health problems similar to those I study, if that got conflated with me it could easily cost me a job. If random strangers want to look at photos or my cat or point at me on the street as someone who worries too much about where she gets her hair cut then I don't care, but when it crosses over into my professional life I am much more worried. How much you care and what you do about it really depends on your profession, I don't think there's one set of rules that works for everyone but it's worth thinking about at least once to decide what works for you.

Identify theft is also a problem depending, to some extent, on your location. But you should be careful with those kinds of details everywhere, not just the internet. As part of this I personally don't worry about my ISP per se, but I do keep in mind that email is not at all secure in any way (by default, there's probably encryption stuff you can use to make it secure) and don't use it for sending things like my credit card details.
posted by shelleycat at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2010

View it from the other side- why does anyone want to know about you? Your friends and business associates know all they need to know (possibly more, but that's life), anyone else does not have your interests at heart. This can be benign (Amazon thinks you might like this book) or it might be skeevy. And you may not consider yourself rich, but there are plenty of nickel and dimesters out there who make it up on volume.

Chances are nothing much is going to happen to you, but why increase the odds if you don't have to? Same logic behind buying insurance.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:53 PM on June 20, 2010

27 year old student teacher denied teaching certificate over myspace photo (she lost her lawsuit, as well).
posted by fings at 4:55 PM on June 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I'm generally of the same opinion as you, that for the most part I'm ok with being out there. That's not to say that being open can't bite you in the ass.

The way I see it there are three main things to keep in mind:

1) Personal. Are you okay with everyone in your life, now or in the future, possibly having the ability to read everything you have ever written on the internet? Do you want your future love interests to see you mooning over someone else, or describing your sexcapades? Your parents? Your children?

2) Professional. It is almost guaranteed that potential employers will Google you or check your profile out on Facebook. The image we present professionally is probably not the one we present to our friends. I think employers would most likely look past the odd drunken picture, but if you come across as unprofessional, uneducated, or drama filled, they might think twice.

Also you never want to bitch about your job, I was in a terrible work situation once, and instead of talking to supervisors about my complaints (which they admitted were mostly justified), I vented online. I was stupid enough to use the name of the project I was working on, and though I quickly (within an hour) wised up, changed the entry and made it friends only, it had already made it's way into Google and it's infernal cache. The higher ups caught it through an alert, and I was quickly out. A painful lesson but an important one, although I still don't want future employers to know about it, so I'm using a sockpuppet to talk about it in even these vague terms.

3) Identity Theft/Harassment. I'm going to discount the 4chan stuff for the most part, unless you have lofty political/celebrity/corporate goals, you're not likely to be the subject of online derision or harassment. There's always the chance that something you do in life could reach Star Wars kid levels of meme, but I'd assume that chance is vanishingly small.

So identity theft, simple. Just don't put your personal info out there. I'd limit it to email on blogs/forums (if you want), and a phone number on a professional site (or facebook if you're comfortable with that).

The internet is fast becoming a repository for the story of each of our lives. It's up to you to decide how much of yourself you want to reveal in that story.
posted by Ceci n'est pas un sockpuppet at 4:55 PM on June 20, 2010

I definitely keep different user names (and email domains) for different aspects of my life. One for personal shit, one for work-related shit (attached to my real name), and another couple pseudonyms that get hauled out when the occasion presents itself. The goal here is for somebody searching the email address they receive, the username from it, or your name, to only come back with professional and public information about you.

I'm not on Facebook, precisely because everything is tagged against your real name. Even shit that you don't upload yourself. Somebody takes a picture at a party, somebody sees it, tags it as you, and suddenly your future employer searches your name and comes back with photographic evidence that you've been real intimate with a bong made from a cow's skull.

Googling my name mostly gets you a bunch of biography articles about an old, dead preacher. And people whose last name is my whole name. This is because I've managed to keep my name out of path of the spiders. Metafilter is super good about this, in that its users' names (if they've entered them) don't show up to the search spiders. I'm also blessed with a fairly generic last name, which really helps.

The one time I totally slipped up, though, was going to a mental health-related channel on IRC with my full name in my user field (filled in by default from system settings). Trolls attempted to find me on facebook, and sent me several photographs and biographical details. (Un)Fortunately, they found the wrong person, and I let them think they'd found me. But, if I had been on the sites they searched, they would have been able to harass me easily. So, there's that.
posted by Netzapper at 5:18 PM on June 20, 2010

A friend of mine had an interview to clerk with the Supreme Court of Canada [didn't get it, sadly]. During her interview Justice Binnie asked her about her boxing - she's boxed for years, and competed in a match for a fundraiser put on by our school. This wasn't on her resume, she hadn't mentioned it at all. But they most certainly googled her and asked her questions about what they found. Good thing there was nothing hinky.

But that's why you should be worried.
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:29 PM on June 20, 2010

Privacy preserves your ability to compartmentalize your life.

In a perfect world, that wouldn't be necessary, but it easily can be necessary in this current world.

There's a bit of a catch-22 quality to it, of course, because perhaps if everyone let their freak flag fly, then no one would give a shit about your flag. See "outing" and the controversy over that.
posted by NortonDC at 6:02 PM on June 20, 2010 [4 favorites]

I was once taking certain classes. There was a small technicality that should have prevented me from enrolling, but which was overlooked. I really wanted to take the classes, so mentioned on my blog at the time that I was happy it had worked out. Someone, and I have a pretty fair idea it was someone who had decided I was their online enemy, called the school and got my enrollment revoked based on this technicality.

Petty people, who populate the internet in great quantity, should never be allowed to use your online life to meddle with your real life. This they can do if your online existence is linked to your real one.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 6:10 PM on June 20, 2010

There's nothing wrong with putting yourself out there as long as you aren't being complete. The John Smiths of the world have less to fear than the Gottfried Z. Hackenschliebs. I have been blessed or cursed with a very unique name - probably the only combination in existence. Even though I use a pseudonym here, I probably might be taking a risk in giving that little scrap of information. In fact in the total of my posts here I have provided a good amount of information that an enterprising sleuth or /B/-tard could find me.

I do keep several pseudonyms on the web and I admit to being a little sloppy sometimes. Of course, someone with the ability to track IP addresses could piece it all together. I also post under my own name when I want it known. I don't give out information that would be of too much use but then again if an identity thief is looking for an easy target I am in the AT&T white pages under a listed number. I doubt that would make me an extremely easy target though because I and the millions of other folks in there are not fraught with identity thievery.

A few years ago I did see some Italian gentleman post pictures of all his credit cards front and back onto a public account at Flickr. I don't know what ever became of him but assuming he did it knowingly for some obscure purpose, the odds of his accounts being emptied and used illegally were pretty good.
posted by JJ86 at 6:19 PM on June 20, 2010

Watch the movie "The Lives of Others" The thing is, you don't know how you will play in someone else's plot, politics, grudge, robbery, kidnapping, or scam. Maybe someone hates you, maybe some one just wants to use your or your information as a patsy or a tool, or you simply get caught up as collateral damage. Why give them all your personal information if you don't have to?

It's like saying you live in a safe neighborhood that is patrolled frequently by cops. Still doesn't hurt to lock the door.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 7:05 PM on June 20, 2010

"If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." --Cardinal Richelieu
posted by galadriel at 7:27 PM on June 20, 2010

Just don't post anything to websites that you would be afraid to say in public. If you would be afraid to say it in public there is a reason. That is the reason you shouldn't post it on the web either.
posted by dzot at 6:07 AM on June 21, 2010

I'm not rich, and I don't have any arch-enemies or stalkers that I would ever know about. [...] Any examples of the downfalls of feeding my data into "the beast" would be very helpful in controlling my paranoia.

The situation could change.

You may have to interact with people who are not completely mature - for example, you might become a teacher, and maybe your students would look up those photos of you kissing a girl at a party, or that video your friend took of you falling on your ass doing a ski jump.

So we want privacy for embarrassing photos and videos.

You could have to deal with people who have unreasonable opinions about you, or who make unreasonble assumptions based on the information you make available. There are people who'll refuse to work with an otherwise acceptable employee due to a political bumper sticker; I can believe the same would happen over a MySpace page listing someone as bisexual. Maybe you don't even say you're bisexual, maybe you say you're hetrosexual guy who likes baking; some people might assume you were gay and could discriminate against you for that reason. I'm not saying that we need total privacy for all these details - just that the individual should be in control. It should be your choice whether everyone knows you enjoy baking.

So we want privacy for your sexual orientation and interests - and photos thereof.

Perhaps you're going to have some involvement with politics - it doesn't have to be a career, it could just be that the government will do something you disagree with, like getting your child killed in an unproductive war. You're doing the sort of normal protesting that the government responds to with things like free speech zones. Well, should you find yourself thrust into the political limelight, there will be plenty of people looking for dirt, including otherwise-reasonable things they can use to their political advantage. Maybe there's a flickr post of you riding in a tank.

Perhaps you support the political goals of the ACLU, or the NRA, or both. You don't have to be a big activist or anything, just on a member list and receiveing a few newsletters. There are some people who might hold that against you, like employers, even if you personally keep your work and political lives totally separate - or someone might want to make some political statement with you involved.

So we want privacy for your personal political beliefs, your private life, and things that could be used to embarrass you.

You don't have to be particularly rich to donate a few thousand dollars to a charity - but there are plenty of charities who will sell the details of their major donors, and the lists can get sold on again and again. You donate some money to charity and if news of that gets out you get harrassing phone calls and a deluge of junk mail with pictures of starving children. If you didn't have privacy for your personal finances, this harrassment would be unavoidable.

So we want privacy for financial transactions like donations to charity.

Maybe you've got a job that pays pretty well, but you prefer to live a frugal life and donate most of your income to charity. And maybe you're single and going out on dates. If a date found out that you made $200,000 a year maybe they would date you when otherwise they wouldn't - or maybe it'd just end up being a distracting topic and you'd have to spend every first date justifying your choices and sounding like an insufferable do-gooder when you'd much rather talk about more interesting topics.

So we want privacy for wealth/income/employment.

Maybe you were once a bit silly or naive, you slept with someone, and you got an STD. That'll be on your medical records. There are some people who might make unreasonable assumptions about you based on that information; perhaps that you're having a lot of promiscuous sex, or that you have poor judgement. If you were a teacher and your students found out you were being treated for chalymidia, that could be disruptive.

So we want privacy for medical records.

Or, and here's the main thing, even if you're not in any of those situations, maybe you sympathise with people who are. If we build a society where privacy is 'opt in', the act of opting in will reveal that you have things to keep private. If everyone's medical records are public except for Joe, people may say "Ha ha, I bet Joe has the clap!". On the other hand, if all or most records are private, the fact that Joe's records are private doesn't make people assume he has something to hide.

So if you sympathise with any of the situations above, you should support privacy for most people, in order to protect the minority who need that privacy.
posted by Mike1024 at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here is what I think about privacy: the biggest game in town is figuring out YOU. Your data is what is valuable. What you buy and when. How many bulletin boards do you read before you purchase a high end item. Which boards? How much did you spend online last year? Were you late on any credit card payments? Do you use the terms IMF or Tea Party in your Facebook posts? Do you buy gas in large amounts or small amounts? Do you buy soda when you purchase gas?

All of these pieces of data are pretty worthless, individually. But as I put it all together, I can package YOU to people who want to see you things. Further, as far I know, there is no law that the Federal Government cannot collect data. To be clear: they are NOT spying. They are just collecting data and stuffing it into a data-manipulation system, running against behavior-specific algorithms in order to understand if you are some type of threat. If we are to believe that this data will be left to rot on the trash heap...or that some third party hasn't been given a clearance to work with the data...well, we have to refocus on reality.

The question is what can you do about it? Not much, in my opinion.
posted by zerobyproxy at 12:24 PM on June 21, 2010

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