A long time ago, I had a geocities website. This was the early 2000s, so it had a lot of alternating, highlighted colors and light-on-bright text, but it was mine and I had some fun learning about the internet and web design using it. Anyways, when I created my first website, GeoCities asked for a user name and password. Never been here before? Sign up for an account!
I had never been there before, so I signed up for an account. I made up a username, chose a password, and off I went to HTML heaven. From there, I could anonymously write whatever I wanted about whomever I chose and it would all be safely and securely behind the veil of an anonymous email address (<< real Ross Wasserstrom email address from the 1990s!).
On the opposite side of this experience, I currently have (in 2014) an account with StackOverflow, a forum-based repository for technical and code questions. To sign up for StackOverflow, please enter your email address and choose a password. Simple, right? Anonymous, right? Not so fast…a lot has changed since the early 2000s, when anyone could make accounts anonymously. Let’s examine the chain of anonymity in the process:
To make a StackOverflow account you can:
- Sign up with a Google account
- Sign in through Facebook
- Use your Yahoo! account to sign in
What do all of these account holders have in common? They authenticate your personal identity; your phone number, address, IP address, and other information is captured when you sign up, and you consent (in that enormous Terms & Conditions document) to Google, Facebook, and Yahoo! storing and sharing more of your identifiable information with services like StackOverflow, Amazon, DropBox, MeetUp, Adobe, Link Assistant, and lots more.
To use any service online today, you enter your information into an already existing database, and companies are just verifying that you are who you say you are. They maintain the exclusive right to do whatever they want with your information (a.k.a. sell it on to advertisers), and to refuse service to you if you hide your identity. Google is now turning away users who create too many accounts on Gmail.com, by checking and authenticating phone numbers.
Youtube has recently begun revealing users’ real names in comments, since they have tied user accounts with Google+ accounts (imagine that your personality, derived from all your Google Searches, was made available to the highest bidder…), so much for anonymous posting. All data online is heading in this direction: aggregation in huge corporate data warehouses, to be used for purposes unknown since we’ve already consented by checking the appropriate boxes.
This kind of data aggregation is creepy: all the personal fears we have assuaged by searching online, Facebook stalking, music “borrowing”, celebrity sex tapes, and anything else embarrassing or private that we have done online is being connected with increasingly far-flung corners of the web. You already see personalized ads on sites that you visit, which then influences the ads you see on the next site you visit. Did someone send you an email about Butt Paste? Yep, your amazon.com account recommends a giant, two-for-one oil-drum-sized can of Butt Paste.
The internet used to be anonymous. Email accounts, comment usernames, forums, silly cat videos, and more could be used and posted online freely. Unfortunately, it has become so easy, and lucrative, to gather information about website visitors that companies just can’t help themselves.
One thing you can do to keep a little bit of privacy online (along with these practical solutions) is to keep your own email and cloud storage system. I know it’s sexy to have a Gmail account, but having your free gmail account comes at a price: your entire life is parsed and sold by the company that holds your info. For as little as $5 a month, you could instead have your own private storage space online, with anonymous files, music, photos, and email. How much is your privacy worth? I hope at least $60 per year.