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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

"Online Privacy".inspect

I’ve been working in the web industry for about a decade now. My first job was customer facing technical support for an ISP, but I soon moved towards web design and development.

Throughout my life and career, I’ve never kept a blog (until now). I almost exclusively posted on forums, mailing lists, chatted on IRC etc. under a pseudonym. I stopped really even thinking about it, it became just the way I rolled.

I only created a Facebook account in late 2007 mainly to see what all the fuss was about and to appease a friend who wanted to initiate me into the Transformers Archive. I got onto Twitter in early 2009. I suspect that I created a LinkedIn account only last year also. So what’s the reason for this impressively late uptake of some of the most popular online social networking sites, especially for a person who works with the web every day?

Paranoia (not the role playing game)

Somewhere along the way, I picked up this notion that one really needs to be careful to maintain one’s privacy. If the general attitude many people seem to have towards online privacy these days is any indication, I think I can safely say that my own attitude towards the subject may be viewed by many as quite paranoid.

So where did my burning desire to maintain privacy come from? While I am about as far away from being a celebrity as one can get (and quite happy about this), other people close to me have had a mixed relationship with publicity at one time or another. It also seems to be getting easier and easier to transgress against laws that make no sense as our societies grind steadily onwards. Add to these points that I am a relatively introverted person by nature and this probably goes a ways to explaining where my robust desire to maintain privacy stems from.

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you

Like probably most Internet geeks, I enjoy memes and the one place that’s responsible for more than its fair share is 4chan. 4chan or perhaps more specifically the particular the section of 4chan known as /b/ is quite inextricably linked to the fascinating Internet phenomenon known as Anonymous. Alternatively known by various names depending how the party doing the naming views the actions being taken by Anonymous at the time. I see Anonymous as a bit like a modern incarnation of a capricious god from Greek myth who might one day be your greatest saviour, guiding you to wealth and victory over your enemies, while the next day deciding to give you boils and screw your wife… If that god was largely confined to the Internet. Surely are not all our gods shards of a mirror that reflect the collective attitudes of humanity.

But back to privacy. There’s been more than a few occasions where the “Internet Hate Machine” has decided that its collective wrath shall be brought down upon an individual. Whether these individuals deserved the harassment they received is irrelevant to my discussion today. What I think can be pretty well undisputed is that all of these individuals must have deeply regretted not keeping an iron grip upon their online privacy.

Harassment from Anonymous has never really concerned me personally. Like I said, I’m an Internet geek. I understand Internet culture and while I am not active on /b/ and have never participated in any raids, I do feel a certain affinity with the peoples who inhabit the subcultures enabled by the Internet.

But online harassment and stalking in general terms has always been one factor that I kept in my mind when considering how much of myself I should be putting online.

Facebook

I created my Facebook account with my eyes open. I knew the Zuckerberg back story and that any value Facebook has as a business is tied pretty tightly to how well they walk the line between exploiting the data they store for their users and not pissing those same users off too much. Even if one trusts Facebook its self, third party applications using Facebook as their platform seem like a minefield of possible privacy issues.

There are definitely legitimate privacy concerns related to Facebook but I have found some advantage to being there, occasionally someone I’ve lost contact with will find me through Facebook and that’s cool. Working in the web industry makes me feel that I should at least keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on with the famous websites of the day. But the time sink aspect of the site I just don’t go in for, I’d rather be doing something productive or even vegetating on the couch more than poking and throwing sheep or whatever the kids are doing these days. To be honest, it’s not even the privacy concerns that turn me off Facebook the most, it’s the interface, the feel of the eco-system that Facebook has become. It’s so sprawling and busy. Can there be such a thing as too much AJAX? If there’s a site that might suggest the affirmative, it’s Facebook. So in any case, I joined, immediately locked down my account and visited the site occasionally.

Twitter

I joined Twitter around the time that I last moved workplaces. Some of the people I began working with were on Twitter and I decided to finally give in and try it out. The simplicity of Twitter when compared to the monstrosity of jumbled features that is Facebook was a welcome difference. Although some privacy concerns remained in my mind, most criticism I see of Twitter usually cites inanity more so than privacy. Mr Joel Spolsky puts it quite well:

“Although I appreciate that many people find Twitter to be valuable, I find it a truly awful way to exchange thoughts and ideas. It creates a mentally stunted world in which the most complicated thought you can think is one sentence long. It’s a cacophony of people shouting their thoughts into the abyss without listening to what anyone else is saying. Logging on gives you a page full of little hand grenades: impossible-to-understand, context-free sentences that take five minutes of research to unravel and which then turn out to be stupid, irrelevant, or pertaining to the television series Battlestar Galactica. I would write an essay describing why Twitter gives me a headache and makes me fear for the future of humanity, but it doesn’t deserve more than 140 characters of explanation, and I’ve already spent 820.”

I agree with Joel that Twitter is an awful way to exchange thoughts and ideas but I don’t use it for that very often. Twitter to me is a broadcast medium and I am most often in a consumer role, using it mainly to stay updated on people, projects and news that’s of interest to me. If I want to have anything approaching meaningful two-way communication then Twitter would not be my first choice of tool. Besides, I like Battlestar Gallactica. So in any case, I joined, immediately locked down my account and visited the site more than occasionally.

Google

So now to the big one, the Internet giant trying not to be evil and what I suppose is the turning point in my little tale. I switched to using Gmail as my primary email provider last year. I thought long and hard about this. I knew about the context-sensitive advertisements and this alone was enough to keep me away from using the service for anything other than in a very limited capacity since Gmail launched. My primary email address was provided by my ISP, and I kept and backed up all mail locally. The main reason I finally switched to Gmail? Probably the main reason many people do: Convenience. I got an iPhone and wanted an easy solution that would allow me to synchronise email across my home desktop email client, iPhone and other Internet connected computers I might be using. Gmail and Google Sync sounded worth a go. While I still keep local backups of my data, the idea of having an extra off-site backup of my emails in “the cloud” seemed like a nice bonus. The trade-off is that some automated process on Google’s end now reads my email… in aggregation with millions of other people’s email. Sure, it was a little creepy the first time I noticed an advert in the Gmail browser based interface about accommodation in Japan while I was conducting an email conversation with a friend about a planned trip to Japan, but I got over it.

So began in earnest my slight but definite shift on the issue of online privacy.

For a long time I used to do funny things like log out of my Google account before actually Googling anything, in the (no doubt vein) hope that this might make it harder for Google to associate my search queries with my identity. Now I don’t care.

I started using Google Reader as my feed aggregator, so now not only can Google read my email and know what I search for, but they know a fair chunk of what I read online too. And I don’t care.

Do I have a point?

By this stage dear reader, I’m starting to wonder this myself. But yes, I do have a point:

You can’t live in fear.

It’s time to try something a little different. Yes, that’s what I’ve written. Yes, that’s what I’ve searched for. Yes, that’s what I read. Yes, that’s what I think and I’m willing to stand behind it all. Living involves accepting and calculating degrees of risk on a daily basis and I feel it’s time for some recalculation.

I’m absolutely not advocating ignoring the issue of online privacy. Certainly there are areas of my life that I would prefer remain somewhat compartmentalised. I won’t be posting my credit card number online for all to see or anything stupid like that and certain personal information about me will remain scarce.

There’s still a little voice somewhere deep down that says “What are you doing?! You know they can find you!” But I’ve spent a long time in consideration of these issues and I’m happy with my decisions. Granted it’s probably a little easier for me because I work in the web industry and by now have a pretty intuitive understanding of what privacy issues exist in this space. Before you punch your credit card details into an online store, do you instinctively glance up at the address bar of your browser to see if the URL of the page you’re on begins with “https://” and that the domain is what you expected it to be? If you don’t feel sure to manage your online safety and privacy on your own then may I suggest that you find a friendly Internet geek to assist.

Living in the future

So I’m starting a blog, I’m unlocking my Twitter account and I will continue to use a number of Google’s services in a – to borrow a phrase – “alert but not alarmed” kind of way. I might even get around to filling out my LinkedIn profile at some stage. But I have a feeling I still won’t be doing that much on Facebook, that place is a hole.

Got a question or comment? Hit me up on Twitter