| August 23, 2010 6:01 pm

The Internet is ForeverOver on ZDNet, Dana Blankenhorn, who writes the Linux and Open Source Blog, wrote an interesting piece entitled “We are all an open book.”  He was responding to something that Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, said last week:

Young people may one day have to change their names in order to escape their previous online activity.

To get his post started, Blankenhorn said that Schmidt’s comment may be the “dumbest thing said all year.”  And if you look at it superficially, it is.

There is small chance that all young people of the future will change their names to disown past mayhem.  (Or for that matter, that it would do any good.)  That’s just not how most people think.

If you drill down a level, though, you realize that the comment wasn’t stupid at all.  Or … maybe it’s better to say that the thinking behind the comment wasn’t stupid.  It shows that Schmidt (and thereby Google) is aware of two very powerful, and mutually exclusive, human desires – the hope for fame and the wish to preserve privacy – and that the web is requiring us to rethink our relationship to both.

1.

At no time in history has it been easier for anyone to become a celebrity.  It can happen deliberately, or by accident.  If someone does something funny, or freakish, or interesting (or if they have a funny cat); the videographers might suddenly be a household name (if only for 15 minutes).

Even if you’re not a celebrity, you can still be googled.  When I checked my name this morning, it returned links to this website, information about my professional life, sketches I’ve drawn and photos I’ve taken.  They’re all accurate, and luckily, not one was mortifying.

But this just underscores an important point: privacy is dead.  As Blankenhorn says in his article:

[We can all be found.]  Changing your name won’t help.  Not being found is becoming almost as much a cause for suspicion as finding you said something stupid once upon a time.

And I have.  Many times.  I have a troll who loves reminding me of one such bit of intemperance.  His aim is, simply, to discredit my work, which is what people fear when they say they have lost their privacy to the Web.  They fear that one mistake will haunt them forever.

It is difficult to emphasize just how much I agree with Blankenhorn’s conclusion and his advice for avoiding problems.  Privacy is gone.  Anonymity is gone.  Moreover, they aren’t coming back.  No law, set of controls or policy will put this metaphorical genie back in its bottle.

Even if we wanted to preserve and protect privacy (and I am highly skeptical that most people are even concerned about such protections), I’m not sure that it’s possible.  Nor would extreme measures, such as changing your name, even be helpful.

Consider, for a moment:

  • There are already tools that can search the Internet and identify faces.  While many are used by law-enforcement, others are available for consumers or through investigation agencies.  Which means that you can find just about anyone, if you have a photo of them.
  • But, those might not even be needed.  People actively join social networks and share pictures with one another.  You can tag photos of friends and let them know that you took a picture of them while passed out drunk on the couch.  A lot of this data is open and ends up on the open internet where it can be searched by Google, Bing and others.  You don’t even need to be a user of Facebook.  Your friends are perfectly capable of humiliating you all on their own.
  • Researchers have long been working on algorithms that can detect whether someone wrote a particular piece of prose by looking at its style and language.  Already, these algorithms are pretty accurate and might be used in plagiarism software.  But think about where they might go.  Suddenly, sending an angry (and anonymous) letter to your congressman or newspaper might not be such a good idea.  Especially if all it takes is another small sample of writing to prove that you were the author.

Using today’s technology, you can be traced by photo, social connections and the words that you speak.  People can find out where you live, what kind of car you drive, and whether you identify with a particular political party.  With a little bit of work, they can even unlock secrets about your medical history and finances, and if willing to spend a little bit of money, many more secrets are there for the taking.

As more aspects of our lives move to the digital realm and as we generate more real time data, and as that data gets broadcast via the Internet, the problem is going to get worse.  Much, much worse.  It might mean that every mistake, misstep, utterance and action can be put under the microscope.  Nor is there any guarantee that the account of the error will always be yours, or told in the most flattering manner possible.

Welcome to the New Century.

2.

So, while Schmidt’s utterance might have been a bit outlandish, silly and naïve; it still raises a tremendously important point.  The digital triumvirate – adoption of the Internet, proliferation of social media, and digitization of life – has changed everything.

And while the Internet and related kin can make life better, it can also humiliate, destroy and shatter.  All it takes is one misstep and a public hungry for scandal.  Nor is this something that most people seem to realize.  Yet.

For that reason, Schmidt’s comments weren’t foolish, or silly, or dumb.  Not in the least.  I am afraid that they might be prophetic.  In the future, it might just be technically impossible to recover reputation, standing or prestige.  Even if you do change your name.

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