Monday, June 23, 2014


One of the most important ideas we value in our day to day lives is the idea of privacy. We consider it a foundational idea from which we construct our lives and our choices about how we choose to live them. I wrote extensively about this topic many years ago, long before Edward Snowden was out of grade school.

Long before most people really cared about it. Long before most people considered it under siege.

But it is under siege, and has been for a very very long time. But does it matter? And more importantly if it does, exactly why does it matter?

I tend to see it like this. Not only is our parochial idea of "privacy" an illusion, it isn't even the proper language to describe what we should be caring about.

A practical example... . Want to breadcrumb your way into knowing personal information about someone?

Here's me looking myself up. And I literally did this just now. I opened a new tab and searched for myself, saved a screen capture and imported it. And with knowing almost nothing about myself except for my name and roughly where I live I can figure out which of these would directly relate to information about myself (two of the listings do).

Most of the hyperlinks on an individual link out to pay services (this is how Zabasearch itself, being free, affords to do this), so really you hit a brick wall pretty quickly. Or do you?

If you click through, you'll find a link to my blog as the sixth link in a google search (even has my ugly mug). Big data services like Intelius dominate the rest of the links, and with them you have to pay.

All of $10. Pretty cheap if you ask me. Want to date me? Want to hire me? Just curious about me because I've ticked you off in a forum thread?

This shit is easy. And cheap! And stuff like Zabasearch is just the tip of the iceburg.

And??? This has nothing to do with "privacy". What do I mean??

You won't find very much in the way of unfortunate information about me online. Part of the reason for this is signal to noise ratio. I happen to share names with a moderately famous PGA Pro Golfer. He has way more public exposure than I do, so search results that are relevant about me get pushed much further down in search results.

But, if you are tenacious you will find me. You will find out about my voluminous anime collection. You will find out about my family, my children, and likely find out at least some information relating to my divorce sleighride twelve years ago if you dig deep enough. You might even be able to find out what kind of erotic material online stirs my Kool-Aid. For the record, my tastes are pretty vanilla insofar as that goes. :P

But one thing I am certain of is this. You will find nothing whatsoever about me that I'd not simply tell you if asked.

I wrapped my mind around not only this illusion of privacy ages ago, but also how meaningless it is as a concept. The way most of us view this topic, well it should be more focused on a concept of anonymity rather than privacy.

The only privacy you and I and everyone else has, or has ever had, is the one we're innately stuck with. Our minds and thoughts. This is all we've really ever had. Once a thought or idea is voiced to another, privacy is dead in the water as a concept.

So lets talk about anonymity, because this is the real concern here. And truthfully it largely no longer exists. Whether or not this given truth really matters however, is a more complex idea.

As I say above, given a little tenacity you can easily "find" me. Indeed I realize this. But this works in both directions too. For instance, back many years ago I was an active writer and editor for a few tech publications. As an editor and co-owner of a website it made sense that I keep track of the search engine reach of the things I wrote, for numerous reasons. I wanted to be aware of negative press and negative feedback (which would affect our readership and advertising partners) and any plagarism.

I've had a series of constantly running daily searches on me and my life going since 2004. And it's not paranoia. I set these up back when they were relevant to the business at hand and they just run on their own. I get an email from google whenever relevant data about myself gets indexed anywhere on the public web. Most of the time it's info that leaks through about that PGA Golfer dood (hell I still occasionally get his professional mail).

Having had this free (and painfully easy to set up) service going for a decade has been informitive. Firstly it is equally easy to set this up....on someone else that isn't you. And I haven't done this of course, but there's absolutely nothing stopping me.

I have done searches on people before. Potential dates and mates are an easy target certainly, but I've only gone there when I've hit brick walls that concern me. When stonewalled about things you should know about people you might consider getting horizontal with it is difficult to know whether someone is merely being cautious, or whether someone has something to hide. And to be clear only a handful of times has this saved my bacon. But it did, and that's the point I'm trying to make.

Insofar as myself? I stopped caring about my anonymity a long long time ago. I've been on the internet in one way shape or form for 27 years, which is longer than the world wide web has even existed. I figured out a long time ago the importance of being who you are. Of how to stay under the radar, but accepting that there is no way whatsoever to be invisible. Of owning who you are, what you like, what you do, and how you go about all of that.

Our lives are increasingly a mishmash of what we say and do in the physical presence of fellow humans, and what we do in the digital realm, which is also in the presence of fellow humans. And our innate psychology tends to make us "care" more about what we do face to face than what we do behind a screen.

This is a mistake. Indeed it is *THE* mistake.

And it's a mistake that so many people make so reliably. Because I'm rather network and computer savvy, and because I think rather deeply and deviously, I've actually been involved a few times in my life in bringing this painful reality to the fore. It is an unpleasant business too, which is why these days I shy away from being involved with it.

Nevertheless I've been consulted with on several occasions. Cheating spouses. Porn addictions. I could go on, but you get the gist.

Secrets. It's always about secrets.

I don't believe in secrets. I stopped valuing secrecy a very long time ago. AND YOU SHOULD TOO!

Secrets are simply statements that say you aren't willing to be honest, and this almost always starts with being dishonest with yourself. Secrets have almost no value. They protect almost no one. They offer up little in the way of comfort, or safety, or kindness. Sometimes it is necessary to hurt other peoples feelings, but we shy away from doing this if such a conflict also costs us something we value.

So lets recap... an illusion. nearly impossible.
Secrets...are stupid ideas largely in the way of embracing your existence.

Any questions? :)