We all have thought, hear or read at length the possible idea that the government or some hidden company would eventually be overlooking everything we do and know more about us than what we would like them to. The protection of law is the illustration that we do not want this to happen and have a firm opinion on what the establishment (private or public) should and shouldn’t know about us. However I have recently discovered that it is very difficult to judge what is and isn’t already publicly available with or without our consent.
I am of course referring to the biggest information network that has, in the recent years, been gathering data in the form of blogs, social networks, messaging systems that have been slowly introduced into our daily life. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the improvements of communication flow, even if it is not always for the best. But there are some hidden aspects of this electronic distribution that I would like to share with you. I will try to split them is sections that I thought were appropriate.
Friends & Family Network
I’m personally using my mobile phone, sms, emails, skype, msn, yahoo messenger, my blog and of course Facebook to keep in touch with my friends and family. I still get the odd complains by some that I am not reachable enough. Truth be told, I could communicate more but I sometimes don’t see the point or am basically not in the mood. There is an assumption that because you can be online you should be online. It is as if they should know why you are not there.
There has been a slow development of passive aggressive relation with my close surrounding. Whether I want it or not they are present, active and sometimes giving me more info than I want. The obvious status change on Twitter or facebook is the most obvious, but it is olso valid about the amount of mail that some feel compelled to send to you. All that would be fine around a beer in a bar or as conversation at a dinner table but it becomes a lot at the end of the day.
Bu this brings another aspect, over time you are building a source of historical information on your friends that are not only vague memories from the corner of your mind, but concrete written and stored information on birthdays, weddings, holidays, private confidence and hundreds of pictures. On the other hand they will know who you are in contact with, and your details as well, if you decide to share this information.
To illustrate, I’ll take the obvious example of just adding a female friend on your list. It might just grants you the wrath of your girlfriend or wife even if it was someone you already know for a long time. Or when there is a fall out between two of you friends and one doesn’t understand why you are still in touch with the other by being invited to a party and sharing pictures, or why he/she is still listed as a friend. There are also pictures that you/they took but would rather not see being displayed to all (embarrassing or compromising).
All this information and data is available to all of us already and more is coming. With tagging systems and content flow of digital information exchanged between mobile devices, your friends will soon be able to tell where you are/were at any point of the day.
This is the field that has caused countless issues for some people. Especially in the US where paranoia seems to be a national sport and spying on your colleagues, employees or contractors seems to be done on a regular basis.
Take the case of twitter where there have been stories about employees being sacked or blamed after a comment they made e.g. “calling sick today, hangover after last night party” or the typical “I hate my job”, “my boss is an idiot” or more of “been called by a headhunter, interesting offer I think I will take it”.
Those are all posted for every one to see, and most of us were under the opinion that these comments where the equivalent of stating something around the coffee corner to a few trusted colleagues and that it would remain “private”. Except that it doesn’t.
More and more company recruitment process is to first type your name in generic search engine such as goolge.com or dedicated ones such as 123people.com. Whatever comes up can be a profile, flickr pictures, a blog article, your Amazon wish list… this can be good or bad bits and pieces that will be taken into account in during the selection process, even making you failing a degree because you are just drinking.
It even gets stressful when you already have a job. Suspicions on why you cleaned up your “linked In” online curriculum, the fact your name appears on monster.com recruitment database, questions about names of people working for competitors appearing in your contact list, or pictures of you at a party chatting with some “undesirable” people (ex-employees, competitors,…)
All these pieces of information can land on your manager’s desk or head of human resource department just before your annual review, the decision to sack you or if you deserve a promotion.
I am very happy that it is not my case (and hopefully it’ll remain that way) but some of us have been stalked or pursued by strangers cherishing some weird fantasy or just plainly too curious. The easy way out of these situations, if you were aware of it in the first place, used to be either ignoring them and go home or confronting them to cease this activity by threatening them. Anything more would have to be handled by the police but these are extreme cases. This longing for watching other people has been proven by the success of all those reality shows and is still growing. It even lead to an opening of the CCTV police network to the mass so that anyone can spot a crime.
Today’s level of personal information available is a global issue; finding your phone number is a mere click away, and so is your email, home address, social status, job description, what you may be interested in… Soon enough people will not even have to know your name since a simple snapshot taken on a cell phone could be used to look you up and start the search from there. I know that I am pushing the envelope on paranoia but it is a likely scenario.
As an example, just type your full name in Google surrounded by quotes, e.g. “John Smith” with a bit of luck your favorite social network page will be listed (MySpace, Facebook, …) and switching to the picture tab, you might even find a picture of you.
First time my girlfriend tried, it was a bit strange but she was expecting the results. However, when she tried her last name and a picture of her dad was listed on the first page of the result she felt a cold shiver through her spine because he does not use social networks or post picture online.
State & Private Organization
Of course you can only imagine what could be known about you if someone working in some state or private organization combines the information mentioned above with the information available on their own system.
I am not referring to the police, or the tax department. Banks can combine it with the content of your accounts, thus knowing your revenues and spending habits by just looking at your statement (shops, rent, restaurant, loans) by extrapolating they know not only where you live but what to expect inside that place. Medical insurance company will know about your every little problem and could even know that your brother has cancer before you do; that your wife might be cheating on you because she’s taking treatment for an STD and you are not.
For me, it only proves that we do not have to fear the possible big brother, we all are big brothers, watching each other and having access to such a level of personal data that it is becoming very easy to know someone or for someone to know you… even if you don’t want them to.