Personal Privacy

My undergraduates are increasingly teasing me about my reluctance to keep information online. In fact last week they had me wondering if I was, in fact, getting too old for the field. I used to be one of the people close to the bleeding edge – am I getting too conservative for that position now? Does that mean I can no longer be an effective teacher and researcher? In other words, I was having a bit of a crisis of confidence.

Then two things happened. First, I spoke with my son (who is always a source of wisdom) about my quandary and found that my concern about privacy online is not as conservative as his. So, maybe it is not my age? Second, I read a Time Magazine article about how we have the largest generation gap in history and it is all about this question of how much should we put online. OK, so maybe it is not just me?

Then this morning while reading the New York Times, I felt my confidence return. In an article How Privacy Vanishes Online, the authors discuss how people can deduce data based on the personal information posted on social networking sites – not only one’s own, but also those sites of one’s friends. In fact, it states, “Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number. “

The article went on to remind the reader of last year’s MIT experiment during which students were able to identify with 78% accuracy the sexual preference of students based upon their profiles (which, of course) were stripped of that information. A more recent example is the recent decision of Netflix to cancel their second competition because although the records were stripped of identifying information, individual users could be identified because of their unique viewing history.

People judge you by the information you share and by your friends. This information can be put together in a distinctive “social signature” (as the researchers quoted in the article identify it) that can be used for good, bad an neutral purposes. We tend not to look at our social signature in the same way that prospective employers or others might.

I worry that we have a generation of people who are growing up putting all kinds of things online that will come back to haunt them in later years when they least expect them. Once online, of course, things cannot be taken back. They exist there forever. Just look at our web presence as identified by the Way Back Machine (see All those old web pages that may or may not have things on them that we would not want now (and certainly have design flaws that we would rather not see again) are available for anyone to view. Can we say there will not be a parallel site for facebook, twitter, and other social networking sites?

So, after having my crisis of confidence, I have reassured myself that the problem is that I have more knowledge about what can be done with the data than my students, so I can see possibilities that they cannot. In addition, I have the wisdom that comes with more years to see how one’s personal views change.

I used to tell my students that it was critical that they manage their careers, starting from what courses they take. I will now add that it is critical to manage their social signature so that they can have a career to manage (among other things).


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