Let's take a moment and talk about
privacy. Not specifically protecting yourself from identity theft
sorta stuff, but more where your personal boundaries are for what is
public information, private information and varying levels in between.
We all have them and they vary from person to person. But are you
aware of where yours are? What do you do to protect your own privacy
boundaries, are you consistent, and how can you confirm that you're
doing a good job? And what do you do when you're involved with people
who have different levels of privacy desires?
A fairly large amount of my life has always been accessible to anyone who cares to look. I've laid the framework in my own life to be able to be 'out' about just about everything both normal and not-so-mainstream - to friends, family, work colleagues, etc. I've maintained my own websites, a blog, various photo albums, profiles on various social networking sites, and an active online presence in general. Yes, part of it is my exhibitionist personality and rebellion from growing up in a household that had to be somewhat discrete for security reasons; but a bigger part is also because I firmly believe that because I *can* be out that I should be - to promote awareness that alternatives can be viable choices.
Over the past few years, I've consciously integrated my online screen name with my real-life legal name. This has been a big step for me. And more recently, I've taken an intentional huge step towards being even more visible by opening up to be in the media on topics such as polyamory, geekery, HPV and being childfree by choice. Many aspects of my life, personal and professional, are for once coming together under one identity - me. In the process, I've learned a lot about what I value as private information, and I have had to take a very conscious approach in setting boundaries between what is public and private. Despite what it may seem - I actually do have information about me that I consider private and only share with those I choose.
In the past few months, I've witnessed several examples of people who have needs for privacy but were not creating the boundaries necessary to protect themselves. Protecting your privacy, and the privacy of loved ones, in the 21st Century is not something you can do only part time. It has to be a purposeful intent that is integrated into every post you make, every profile you fill out, every event roster you sign, every cause you support, every review you write and every reply you make on a public blog, e-mail list or forum.
Here's some things to consider and recommendations when it comes to privacy.
We all have different reasons for maintaining a level of privacy. Some people are just simply private people and don't care to share parts of their lives outside of their family and close friends. Perhaps a career that demands higher levels of conforming to mainstream ethics, being in the middle of a child custody battle, or simply not being able to be out to family members are reasons to be private. Sometimes we want to be out, but have to make a choice between our various priorities, and being out just doesn't rank up there. There are always valid reasons to separate out our professional lives from our personal lives and even from our family lives.
Whatever the reasons - make sure you're fully aware of what they are, and that you genuinely embrace the reasons why. When you're not resolute in your reasoning, it's very easy to get sloppy when protecting your privacy boundaries. As humans, we tend to want to be seen and understood, and if you're hiding in privacy for reasons you don't fully resonate with, it becomes very easy to let things unconsciously slip out in ways that can have unintended and irreparable impacts in the future.
Feeling resentful for needing to be private is not effective fuel for forging your boundaries. Conscious intent is.
Think about the future
When evaluating what you keep private and what you don't, you can't just think about today - you have to think about tomorrow. With tools like extensive search engines and WayBack Machine (http://www.archive.org) that can chronicle everything public you post, there's no easy way to go backwards in the path to being more public. There's no 'delete' button you can push to make it all go away. Sure, you can remove your blog, your website, etc. - but you can't always go back and delete all the references made to it, archives kept elsewhere, etc.
If you later decide you need to bury pieces of your life - whether it be taking a job that requires it, joining the Peace Corps, getting involved with someone sensitive to your past 'out' life, or any other number of life changes- it can be difficult and even impossible to erase your past from the public eye. You may find yourself left with the only option of taking on a new legal or professional name, which has the potential to raise its own eyebrows, since having no history can be just as questionable. And if you publish photos of yourself that you'd later rather you hadn't.. I dunno, maybe cosmetic surgery?
What to keep private?
After making it really clear to yourself why you're keeping certain things private, it's time to decide exactly what you're keeping private and from whom. Whether it be choosing an open relationship form as opposed to the societal assumption of monogamy, exploring kinks, sexual orientation preferences, gender identification, financial/socioeconomic status, educational background, professional information, religious beliefs, what computer platform you prefer, or any other number of things.
In many cases, you may find that you're comfortable being out about a range of information within one community, but not another. For instance, in your professional life you may be comfortable talking about your Mac OS preference, the type of car you drive, and your multiple committed partners in your life.. but you're in the closet about the kinky parties you attend on weekends and that you only have a high school diploma. But with your kink friends, perhaps you don't talk about your work life, educational background or computers. But what happens when you have an acquaintance in your life who sees you both whip your partners at the clubs on the weekends and input ledger information into the corporate database during the week? Does this present a problem between the boundaries between different aspects of your life? Unfortunately, there's likely not a clear cut answer to this and a lot will depends upon your relationship with the person and the reasons why you're hush-hush in these different venues.
In some cases, there may be information that you keep contained to just those close to you, and private to the rest of the world. How do you determine who you trust with this information, and do you make sure they know it's private information? Don't assume that everyone you open up to has the same levels of privacy and will necessarily know that you expect privacy with the information you share.
Protecting your Boundaries
There have been a couple of instances in the past couple of months when people have been concerned about information they deem sensitive and confidential getting out about them in light of my increased media presence. One individual was guarding information for a very specific reason that was close to their heart, and concerned that they had been outed in ways that could have some serious consequences. I was mystified that within a couple of minutes I found their public blog with entries and user info that clearly linked the information they were concerned about to their past and current real life identities and physical location - all conveniently laid out on one searchable page. The reporter could have just as easily gotten a tidbit of information from me as from the original source.
I had other friends who asked me not to link to their blogs in my journal entries, and instead use initials - even in entries that had nothing to do with any of my alternative choices, and in no way implicated them as being anything but a friend I spent time with.
And totally unrelated to my media presence, I've also had a number of friends in sensitive jobs, like school teachers, who are held up to pretty high mainstream standards, but who also were involved in alternative lifestyles. They were very active in these lifestyles, even volunteering at organizational levels - using their real names. Is it any wonder that eventually students and/or parents found links to their personal lives and this caused problems in their career and reputation?
In my opinion, the folks above were not protecting their own boundaries.
You have to take responsibility for setting your own boundaries and protecting them. Not everyone in your life may share your values, or even pre-think about how their well meaning intentions of including you as part of their story may impact your need for privacy. While there are some of us who are aware and will happily go to reasonable efforts to remove links to your unprotected identity, that may not always be the case.
If you have things to be private about, here is some straightforward advice:
1) For the love of the Flying
Spaghetti Monster (or deity of your choice), if you need to be in
the closet about anything - do not use your real name or other 'real
life' identifying information in association with the areas of your
life that you are protecting.
2) Create an online identity that is not tied to your real name, and don't create fuzzy lines between the identity you share with family/co-workers and the identity you use to pursue the things you'd rather keep private. This means: no giving your parents that you're not out to links to your blog/website that includes links to your kinks, no publishing identifying information in association with your alternative identity, use your alternate identification to link to friends who do associate with things you keep private - not your mainstream identity, and a bunch of other things that seem like common sense.
3) Make sure your friends who do tend to blog and publicly share their story know how you prefer to be referenced. If you give them an online identity, make sure that where the identity leads does not go somewhere you don't want the general public or media going. You just never know when your friend will have the spotlight shined on them, and thus potentially you. (And if you blog about other people in your entries, it's never a bad idea to check in with them first.)
4) Some people like to take pictures. Some people like to post pictures. If you don't want to be in pictures that are posted in public places - make sure you know what the intent is of the picture before the shutter clicks. Excuse yourself from group photos that are going to be publicly posted to someone's blog or Flickr! account. (On the flip side, if you're taking photos... get everyone's permission before you publicly post something.)
5) If you attend conferences or events in relation to the things you keep private about in your life, be very careful about the information you give the organization. If they don't have sensitivity to privacy by either keeping your personal information safeguarded or allowing you the option to use a pseudonym, you may want to opt not to attend.
6) Realize that the media can infiltrate places, and despite your best intentions and the intentions of event organizers - you can be outed at any moment when you choose to blur the lines between your compartmentalized lives.
7) Be very aware of what you post and reply to, and what identity you're using. For instance, some e-mail lists have every message in their archives indexed in search engines (example: the UU-Poly e-mail list.) Don't reply to public blog entries with a non-alternate ID to people or topics you don't want want to be linked to down the road.
8) Be careful where you click from. Many webmasters use tools like www.statcounter.com to track hits to their website. Many of these sites can collect more information about you than you probably realize. For instance, if you're reading this entry on your LiveJournal friend's page and click to my website (www.smoocherie.com - come on, I dare you!) right now, I'll be able to tell the following information: Your LJ username (from the linked from URL), your IP address, where in the world you are, what filter you have me on (if you're reading this on a filtered list) and what other pages on my site you visit. Now, I doubt you care that I know this stuff.. but think about when you're visiting sites of unknown origin. If your LJ user name has info about you, you could be giving a webmaster more information about you than you intend. Instead, cut and paste the link into a new window/tab and limit the information you reveal.
When it comes down to it, YOU are
the one most responsible for protecting your own privacy. You
should not count on your friends to do it for you, particularly since
they very well may have a very different definition of what should be
private than you do.
Verify that your boundaries are being protected
Warning: You may already be more public than you intended.
I've been amused on more than a couple of occasions when someone tells me they are a very private person without an online identity.. and then with in a few clicks be able to find more information out about a person than they may be aware is accessible. In a recent example, I found articles and interviews that were published years ago about a rather sensitive topic with the person in question profiled. I don't think this person was aware that articles that were once published in print are now accessible online, and thus they have an online presence despite their intentions.
I put aside time about once a month to ego-surf. I like to be very aware of just how visible I am, and what information comes up about me. While I'm using these methods to see how widespread my information is going, you can also use them see how contained you are.
Here are some of the tools I utilize in this investigation:
engines: I search across multiple search engines (Google.com,
Yahoo.com and MSN) with my online name(s), multiple variations on my
real name, address, phone number(s) and e-mail addresses. I
also search for combinations of these things with keywords that
might be of interest (ie. smoocherie polyamory - fully realizing
that this very post may now generate a hit on those keywords.)
2) News & Blog feed searches: Google.com allows you to search blogs and news feeds for keywords - use it! From the Google menu, just click the 'more' link next to the search box and select 'Blogs' or 'News'. I search for the same things I search across the web for above. I even have alerts sent to me from google when new things appear on these keywords, making my ego-surfing more passive. There are other blog trackers out there, such as: search.blogger.com, www.technorati.com and www.blogpulse.com that are worth browsing on too.
3) Profile building sites: There's a new type of site out there that goes across the internet and compiles a composite sketch of a person based on information that is accessible on the web. One such site, www.zoominfo.com can show you the resume that it builds based off public professional information. You can go search for your name (or the name of anyone you want to know about) without signing up. It's a really cool and impressive tool... but very scary too, especially if it gathers information about you that you didn't know was public or even accurate.
Many employers are utilizing these
various tools when they get a resume - even before they read your
qualifications. Be in the know about what is out there about you.
And if you find information that you don't want out there - you can
either try to get the person who published it to remove it (and
hopefully fall off the search indexes in time), or be thankful that
you know the information is out there so you're not caught off guard
about what others may already know about you.
When privacy boundaries clash
Whether you're out there blogging about your day in public ways with people in your life who have desires for privacy, or you're a private person with someone you love who blogs about everything - it's likely to come up at some point that needs for privacy don't exactly mesh between you and others.
Maybe it's a partner, friend or family member who blogs about everything they do with you - from the vacations you take to the meals you share. Or maybe you're a very out person who has a family member who, while is accepting of who you are, doesn't want attention drawn to them about your choices. You may find yourself having to find a workable solution that provides for the varying levels of privacy desire.
Some possible solutions that I've seen work:
1) The public person using a
pseudonym when referring to the private person.
2) No names at all being used.
3) Keeping information/stories/pictures that includes the private person behind fairly limited filters.
4) Omitting the private person from the public person's public 'story'.
5) The public person using a pseudonym or first name only for their most public endeavours (such as activism and media appearances), as to limit the amount of spotlight that falls onto those close in their lives.
Oh, and it's usually easier to
discuss these things before
the public person is put in the spotlight, than after.. as then you
won't be trying to figure this all out while the private person is in
shock at having their privacy intruded upon.
If you have a need to for privacy, take the time to figure out just where your boundaries are, make sure to take that conscious intent into everything you do and take responsibility for protecting your own privacy. Before you click that 'Send' button - make sure you realize just where that information will show up and that you may not have the opportunity to remove it later.