Internet footprints and future scrutiny

Frozen blue lake, Vermont

Both The Economist and Slate have recently featured articles about the increasingly long and broad trails people are leaving behind themselves online: everything from comments in forums to Facebook profiles to uploaded photographs. Almost inevitably, some of this content is not the kind of thing that people will later want to see in the hands of their employers, the media, and so forth. I expect that more savvy employers are already taking a discreet peek online, when evaluating potential hires.

The two big questions both seem to concern how attitudes will evolve, both among internet users in general and among scrutinizers like employers. It’s possible that people thirty years from now will view our open and informal use of the internet as roughly equivalent to the famously uninhibited sex had by hippies in the 1960s: a bit of a remarkable cultural phenomenon, but one long dead due to the dangers inherent. It is also possible that people will come to view the existence of such information online as an inevitability, and not judge people too harshly as a result. Less and less human communication is the ephemeral sort, where all record ceases once a person’s voice has attenuated. As a result, more of what people say and do at all times of their lives (and in all states of mind) is being recorded, often in a rather durable way.

Personally, I suspect that the trend will be towards both greater caution and greater tolerance. Internet users will become more intuitively aware of the footprints they are leaving (especially as more high-profile cases of major embarrassment arise) and employers and the media will inevitably recognize that almost nobody has produced a completely clean sheet for themselves. Of course, there will still be a big difference between appearing in photographs of booze-fueled university parties and appearing at KKK rallies. The likely trend is not that a wider range of activities will be excusable, but rather that more evidence about everything a person has done will be available.

We can also expect the emergence of more private firms that seek to manage online presence, especially after the fact. Whether that means bullying (or bribing) the owners of websites where unwanted content has cropped up, creating positive-looking pages that outrank negative ones, or stripping away elements of databases through whatever means necessary, there will be a market for data sanitation services. While some people are likely to push for revamped privacy laws, I don’t see these are likely to be much help in this situation. When people are basically putting this information out in public voluntarily, it’s not clear how legislation could keep it from being scrutinized by anyone who is interested.

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Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

15 thoughts on “Internet footprints and future scrutiny”

  1. People will also get smarter about having multiple handles and pseudonyms: real name for the legit professional website, fake names for forums and things.

  2. I think about this pretty frequently as well. Digging up dirt on political candidates in the future will be a pretty easy task, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Apart from the ramifications in a professional context, I wonder what our children and grandchildren will think if they can still easily dig up photos of us in scandalous outfits, beer-bonging.. etc.

    When we are lecturing them about drinking, smoking, partying. etc. all they need to do is seek us out online to find a trail of evidence pointing to our own examples.

    I think you’re right that there will be a very real desire for data sanitation, once our collective offspring start using Google.

  3. The issue is going to require everyone to behave more prudently in every aspect of their lives. Not only do you have to be careful about the kind of pictures you post online, you have to be careful about having your picture taken in the first place, since you never know when someone else will post it. Young people are going to regret all of the stupid beer bong pictures just as much as they regret the tattoos, and they are both permanent.

  4. While material online can come back to bite you, I think it can be helpful too.

    As a potential employer, I would be impressed to see that someone I am thinking about hiring has participated in mountain climbing expeditions, demonstrated artistic talent, etc.

  5. It’s not just photos or information on what a person has done that could be important in this context, as well. The opinions you have expressed can be important too: especially on controversial issues. A company may not be too keen to hire someone who denounced their industry in the past, for example.

  6. Anon,

    I agree. In particular, people will learn not to use handles that eventually tie back to their real name or other identifying information in online circumstances where they never want their real name known.

    For example.


    I have already seen all manner of slightly disturbing stuff posted to Facebook by people who used to be my students. I agree that it will make it more challenging for authority figures to maintain respect in the future.


    I am not sure if that is true. I am reminded of a quote from the film Kinsey: “Everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin, and everybody’s crime is no crime at all.”


    I can certainly see how having some positive results turn up in a Google search could be an advantage. The point on opinions is also a reasonable one, though it is a bit sad to think that people will avoid engaging in debates on controversial subjects because they fear some past remark will limit their future opportunities.

  7. This trend could also undermine legislation like the Young Offenders Act, which is meant to ensure that people aren’t unfairly penalized for mistakes they make while young. It makes it all the easier for a single slip-up to cause lifelong problems.

  8. Talk of sex and drugs on teens’ MySpace profiles drops after warning: study

    Last Updated: Monday, January 5, 2009 | 3:59 PM ET

    CBC News

    Teenagers often mention risky behaviours on social networking websites but a single warning email from a doctor may decrease those references, say U.S. doctors who used MySpace to conduct their research.

    Members of social networking sites such as MySpace create personal web profiles that can include photos, text and audio. It’s estimated that just under half of American adolescents use social networking sites.

  9. Google Researchers Warn of Automated Social Info Sharing

    “Researchers from Google have written a paper about how social networks can undermine privacy. The most interesting scenario they discuss is ‘merging social graphs’ — when correlating multiple social networks makes it possible to reveal connections that a person has intentionally kept secret (PDF). For example, it may be possible to work out that a certain LinkedIn user is the same person as a MySpace user, despite their attempting to keep their profiles separate. The Google solution is to develop software that screens new data added to a social network, attempting to find out if it could be fodder to such data mining.”

  10. One related development is this: because of digital cameras, the proportion of the population that has produced amateur pornography is probably at an all-time high.

    Inevitably, at least some of that is going to end up in the public domain. Inevitably, some of the people who this happens to will be politicians or otherwise in the public eye.

  11. An Expectation of Online Privacy

    By Bruce Schneier

    If your data is online, it is not private. Oh, maybe it seems private. Certainly, only you have access to your e-mail. Well, you and your ISP. And the sender’s ISP. And any backbone provider who happens to route that mail from the sender to you. And, if you read your personal mail from work, your company. And, if they have taps at the correct points, the NSA and any other sufficiently well-funded government intelligence organization — domestic and international.

    You could encrypt your mail, of course, but few of us do that. Most of us now use webmail. The general problem is that, for the most part, your online data is not under your control. Cloud computing and software as a service exacerbate this problem even more.

    Your webmail is less under your control than it would be if you downloaded your mail to your computer. If you use, you’re relying on that company to keep your data private. If you use Google Docs, you’re relying on Google. This is why the Electronic Privacy Information Center recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission: many of us are relying on Google’s security, but we don’t know what it is.

  12. Facebook gives users more control of data

    Omar El Akkad
    Globe and Mail Update
    Published Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2010 2:20PM EDT
    Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2010 2:51PM EDT

    In another move designed to bolster its public image and counter criticism of its privacy policies, Facebook will now allow users to download all their data off the site.

    Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced a service Wednesday called “Download your data.” The service essentially allows users to download every piece of information they have on Facebook – including personal data, photos, notes and messages. The social network will then bundle all that data into a single file and allow the user to download that file.

  13. “There seems to be no end to the ways your personal data and online behavior can be used against you. According to the Wall Street Journal, insurance companies are considering using online behavioral and social networking data to try to weed out insurance risks. What you read, what you buy, how much TV you watch, your credit, your fan pages… it could all be used to predict your longevity and insurance risk. The practice, which appears to be in the early stages, could raise concerns with the FTC and insurance regulators, but insurance and data mining companies say they just plan to use it to speed up the applications of people who appear to be good risks; others would have to go through more rigorous traditional screening.”

  14. Collusion Add-on for Firefox

    Mozilla has released an interesting link-analysis tool (like those used for police investigations but without events) called Collusion

    Collusion is an experimental add-on for Firefox and allows you to see all the third parties that are tracking your movements across the Web. It will show, in real time, how that data creates a spider-web of interaction between companies and other trackers.

    I fired it up to do a simple test with a blog site. A plugin called Sexybookmarks, infamously found in “over 200,000 websites,” seemed like a good place to start. It supposedly makes it easier for readers to share posts to Twitter, Facebook, and so forth but it also gives blog administrators a vague “track performance” option.

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