Barely Caught! [Catch Me If You Can: Part-2]
The issue of online privacy keeps me thinking a lot these days about my surfing habits. Suddenly, I have become more alert to the markers dropped innocently during my web travails.
The awareness hit me when a close friend narrated his experience of online snooping on someone. No prizes for guessing, the person was his ex-flame. The search had been going on for quite some time but met with little success. The reason was not his inability to look at the right places. It was simply that The Person either was WWW shy or didn’t have regular connectivity. The Person must have been doing the regular stuff like e-mail and IM chat; but nothing beyond – no personal blogs, no web pages, and no profile on a community.
One fine day, my friend’s usual search for The Person on an online community brought up an unfamiliar result. Clicking through made him realize that his search was over! The lucky breakthrough delivered more than he had imagined as this was a profile page full with recent details about The Person. It also contained conversation snippets of The Person with other people. After spending some hours making these click-throughs, my friend had The Person’s personal life virtually laid bare in front of him. Latest job, recent events in The Person’s family and friend circle, future plans and more formed a collective picture. What came out didn’t provide any comfort to my friend; but that’s another story.
I was kind of shocked to know that my friend was able to pull out so much information just sitting at his terminal. He didn’t even have to hack into any accounts or employ any unfair means. All this information was in public domain; anyone could have collated this info! While my friend did not mean any harm (actually he suffered more by knowing about The Person’s current personal life and has decided to abstain from any further enquiry), I was perturbed to know that similar such data could be gathered upon me by someone looking to extract benefits from knowledge about my personal life. It also gave an eerie feeling that I don’t even know if someone might be watching at this very moment what I am doing!
Frankly, my importance in the Grand Scheme of Things is not so great that I can become a target of an attack. And neither is my personal life so colorful that hungry eyes will be devouring it. Yet, it does put a constraint that it will not be possible to keep away certain people from me even if I want to. How do I overcome this? A simple solution would be to delete my profile on such networking sites. While that may work, I still can’t delete the Caches of the Search Engines of the world which will turn up my blog post and comments in online communities long after I have deleted them.
The posts that I make today on various topics may not be exactly what I think about them in, say, 5 years from now. However, not being able to purge off these records makes me vulnerable and accountable in future. And if it is true for me, it is true for anyone around. That brings up the fundamental question whether we should enthusiastically participate in the culture redefining phenomenon of “online collaboration”? If we don’t, we are missing on one of the most exciting, democratic process of information creation of our times. If we do, the indelible, permanent marks we engrave on the Web may come to haunt us in future. My future career will have more implications of this than ever before. Imagine the kind of nightmare that can ensue when a sub-ordinate or a mischievous colleague discovers a scandalous or emotionally charged event from my past years.
I have begun the task of eliminating these markers to the extent that I can. Still, where should the line be drawn?
[Update #1: 23/02/2007]
I found here a way to block Google Searchbot from discovering a webpage and adding to its index. This partially solves the problem. Still, I can't prevent Google from indexing my posts on online forums.