“The Leprechaun of Privacy”


Ongoing Privacy Rant #365…
I’ll mention a highly personal story to illustrate part of my point. When I started genealogy, I ran into resistance from some people. For them, it was a threat. Learning new things about people or digging into the past does indeed drag up old bones and skeletons fall out of the closet by the dozens. Most of us have said or done stupid things in our lives. The internet has changed just how pervasive the access to it might be, but not that it has always been findable if you want to look. My dad, for example, was a world-renowned drinker – and he was the type who sometimes routinely engaged in violent and/or risky behavior when he drank. In fact, I would say it was one of his key legacies. It’s the truth and I don’t make it sound worse just by mentioning it. But even for me, I know full well it wasn’t the sum total of his life. On March 21st, 1970, he was driving drunk while my cousin was in the car with him. An accident occurred and my cousin was killed. (You can find it in the newspaper archives and maybe in the digitized broadcasts from local stations.) My dad was also in prison at Pendleton in Indiana in the mid-60s. He had a lot of DWIs and run-ins with authority. People can be mad at me because I consider those things to be noteworthy. They aren’t the only noteworthy things about his life. But they are publicly available facts, ones which should be included in his life. He was more than a drinker – but it is part of his legacy. Family members shouldn’t be mad at the internet or public records simply because the information exists. And they shouldn’t try to quash even the idea that these things happened. His life speaks for itself, as does yours and mine. It’s where we end up that matters and how we adapt to what we learn. The mistakes we make often are permanently available for others to learn about.

In my own life, I have been writing several different posts about privacy. In the middle of it all, unrelated to various posts-in-progress, I had something happen that goes to the very heart of privacy and each person’s reaction to realizing that they have none. A really great person was experiencing that realization that the internet never forgets. I hated to see someone worry so much about the information that was ‘out there.’ None of us wants our lives, especially the less-than-stellar parts, shown on live television or in the newspaper. (Much less discussed at the water cooler.) No ill intent was at work with the recent issue and no one was looking at the person with judgement. But he/she thought this was the case and began to worry about the reminder to his or her legacy. It is agonizing to have made a mistake and wish more than anything to go back and do it differently. This is something we all are learning as our lives become more and more digitized and at our fingertips. You can easily find out what nonsense I’ve been in trouble for, and I can probably see that you once lost your mind temporarily and donated money to the GOP. We can laugh about it, hopefully learn from it, and do things differently.

Google yourself. Or use duckduckgo.com. Try versions of your names. Add the state to your search, used advanced options or try different criteria. Click on the “images” or “maps” tabs.

I’ve rarely googled a person and found few results. With a little creativity or page-clicking, most people have considerable information about themselves floating around the internet. It’s usually on the first page of the results, too.

Using public searches is how I always help others find missing loved ones, their fathers, old classmates, or people they are curious about. It’s not some secret methodology. Really, anyone can learn to be quite adept at information culling if they are patient or don’t mind trying 64 different combinations of the same searches. There are so many free places to search that a list would be quite long. If you start googling and clicking links, you’ll get the idea immediately. When you reach the point where you can figure out how information is referenced (or how one thing necessarily leads to another, even though it may not be obvious), you will open up an entirely new level of inquiry.

Yes, your picture is almost always out there, too. No, it’s never the flattering pictures, the ones when you were 25 and buff, or being presented a National IQ award. They tend to be when you have just been arrested, appeared in a before/after weight loss ad as the ‘before’ picture, or from when you worked somewhere horrific. If you participate in social media, there will be more. Likewise, if your friends and family do social media, even when you don’t, your picture and name will be much more likely to be all over the internet. It surprises some people who don’t have Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that their pictures are on the internet, and discoverable by searching.

I’m going to tell you a secret: someone knows all your dirty laundry. With some people, everyone knows about it. And yes, they were almost all gossiping about it at some point. It’s a distinctly human trait to want to share and trade crazy stories. But like all things, we move on to either more important things or redirect toward the next person acting crazy. The bell can’t be unrung and if you look backwards at those events you could drive yourself crazy. You learn and you move on.

(Also, did you share a deep, dark secret with someone? Well, someone else probably knows about that, too, even though you will never know that it was shared with someone else in most cases.)

If you did something crazy or made the news, the internet will never forget. If you were arrested, your picture will float around forever. There are many sites which get revenue for people clicking around and searching. There are throwaway weekly magazines with titles such as “Jailbird,” endless facebook mugshot-swapping sites, and even most government agencies publishing the pictures of all inmates.

I’ve seen experts claim that they can’t be located on the internet or that the internet has been ‘scrubbed.’ Like the mysterious “Credit Report Fix-It” claims, these guys are usually quite mistaken. There are those who are indeed very hard to find. But they are as rare as purple chickens. When privacy experts are being honest with you, they will tell you that all your mistakes are available for the world to see. Trying to conceal them usually invokes “The Streisand Effect,” and then draws the very attention you were trying to avoid.

The above is all true without using any paid services. For a small fee, you might as well have published your entire life history on a public Facebook post. Believe me; everything significant that has ever been placed on paper is going to be in those files. They might be in several places, but it is all out there, probably forever. Some services are cheap while others are more expensive.

Perhaps more disconcerting is that as you gain more experience in life you are much more likely to be open to review. Do you have professional certifications? Degrees? Business Licensing? Registered with your city, county, state or federal government for any reason? Notary? Minister? Teacher? Lawyer? Doctor? Nurse? The more credentialed you are, the more times you are going to be indexed and the easier it is to find you and find out things about you. Especially when you trip and fall through the proverbial plate glass window in your personal life. Brush the glass off and stop worrying that “everyone knows.” Of course they are going to know!

Privacy is a leprechaun.

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