We know that privacy does not exist in the Internet age. But what that “meant” at one time is not what it means now. Then information was available but hidden. Now it is all on the surface, aggregated, and correlated.
People protect themselves from the implications of no privacy in different ways. Some protect themselves by being extremely circumspect. I know of a person who though professionally distinguished has but one search engine hit and that comes from a bibliography. How did he/she do that? (I am not going to disturb this carefully protected profile by attributing a gender to it. If I could plausibly claim it was a space alien I would.) Others protect themselves by “not caring”. But what we don’t care about changes as we find new settings to play in and as new capabilities emerge.
I just did an Internet search on my name. I had not done this in maybe a year. I was happy to find repeat hits for proceedings volumes I edited with others. And I was surprised to find that those proceedings are for sale on several sites. I think I have about 50 books to sell unless I threw them out already. There was a time when you couldn’t or wouldn’t sell all the extra stuff in your house on the Internet. Those books are being offered for $185 each! I can beat that price if I can find the books.
But let's get on to the disturbing part. In the late 80s I dashed off an invited paper for a special issue of an obscure regional academic journal. That was when I was one of a tiny handful of (X Academic degree holders) working in (X Field). I was not working in research when I wrote the paper. I wrote in a chatty bloggish fashion
ahead of my timeand filled the paper with silly metaphors and cute turns of phrase. I hate that paper.
To make matters worse, someone at the low-cost self-publisher of this journal retyped the manuscript and turned my silly paper into an illiterate paper. The rights are apparently now owned by a major academic publisher. I accept silly as a side-effect of spontaneity. But I fancy that I do know how to write in English, and am particular about English words. I had consoled myself that very few people would ever find this paper due to its low print volume and being regional, applied, low topic interest, etc. Now it is prominent in my search results, possibly due to the prestige of the new copyright holder. Get it? The context is all switched around. The non-digital becomes digital, the low profile gets acquired by a higher profile.
I have been careful in the past not to flame (public) distribution lists and to avoid posting irresponsible digital content under my name. But now that things are being scanned in from the printed pages of prehistory, and who knows, the entire contents of (Former Employers) backup server archives???.... It’s not skeletons in the closet; it is zombies that will keep me up at night.
There are so many new considerations now. One of my search hits lists my political contributions, with a map to my house! Both of those things ought to be public knowledge, but also in theory, they ought to have been hard to find and they would have been in separate files. Someone would have to deliberately look for them; but no, not now. Now this information is a published portrait.
I read in today's New York Times that the entering administration is asking cabinet candidates to include their Internet nicknames on their background applications. Think of the intemperate things you may have said behind the supposition of anonymity, just in the area of opinions, letters to your representatives. Sure, you tried to frame them reasonably, but admit it—for about half of us those opinions may have a careless statement or two in them.
We have sensed that privacy was dead for a long time. But I didn’t really think I was a particular person whose privacy was dead. I thought I was too obscure, like that journal. I thought I could manage my public persona. That was an illusion.
The experience makes me want to hide forever behind the firewall of Intel with my Information Security friends in black hats standing guard around my cube. In addition to keeping me compliant, they would make sure I don’t say anything stupid. Word to the wise...you do know that your face is a pattern that can be searched anywhere, don't you? For most of us it is too late to take that pattern back from the public domain.
I didn't intend to sign up for the “I don’t care” club. I do care. But I did sign up, a long time ago. The meek shall indeed inherit the earth, by not having said anything. Now I know what "meek" means and why they will inherit the earth.