The Crying (about digital identity) Game

Image of hand against scannerOh, digital identity aggregation sites – is there anything you can’t do?

Apparently not, from my point of view. Last week, a relative e-mailed me a website intended to aggregate, and share, publicly available digital information for individuals. The database was searchable by first and last name. When I entered a search for myself, I inadvertently solved a longtime personal mystery.

I’m a man, baby.

At least, I showed up on the site as both female and male.  This realization actually isn’t surprising. I have a traditionally male first name. Moreover, this finding resolves a source of occasional irritation: I get a lot of junk mail addressed to me as “Mr.”

I tried checking the about page on the aggregator website to figure out the digital sources so I could pinpoint the source of a record for my name – not a common one, I might add – listing me as male. Unfortunately, the details about sources are vague – “people-related public records,” it reads. And some mention of an ominously-named “deepnet,” which I picture as a sort of digital Mariana Trench. (In reality, the deep web suggests content not in HTML format, or behind login scripts, for example, and it constitutes a wealth of information many times larger than the surface ‘Net, or what a user can typically browse or search.)

All of this made me wonder: where did my digital identity go wrong?

A person’s “digital identity” – the accumulation of records tied to one’s personal, financial, or professional life – can be a difficult thing to manage.  At best, one only has control over portions of it. Traditionally, theories about digital identity (or personas) include proprietary and public spheres.

The accounts I have opened online are in effect proprietary, meaning I have established an account or acted voluntarily. With sites such as social media, I can add content myself, or let friends add content. Most crucially, I have entered into some sort of agreement with the online company. In trying to stay on top of the privacy setting changes in social media, I ostensibly have some measure of control in shielding my content from public searches.

Importantly, however, proprietary digital identity also includes data about me in other “closed” systems, such as Social Security or medical records. Documents maintained in closed systems – a municipality for property ownership records, or information related to political donations – may be found with online searches at specific sites, but can be excluded from search engine results. Which leads to a somewhat gray area: this is related to the “deepnet,” mentioned above, where the proprietary and public spheres converge.

public persona can include data from proprietary sources such as Facebook or MySpace – which is where all the really juicy stuff resides, according to a former tabloid reporter – if a user does not override default settings. Other public identities include any information item findable with a search engine, such as this blog, for example. Individuals who are savvy with search engine optimization (SEO) techniques can have some influence over the page rank of search results (for instance, if I were to strategically link my academic portfolio at several well-traveled sites to drive that result up the page to the top result for my name). The conservative rule of thumb, though, is that there is no truly private sphere for any content posted on the Internet.

Digital identity issues will continue to evolve as a greater number of transactions, and particularly government services, move online. All I know, related to my discovery, is that I have certainly never posed as a man online or otherwise. That leads me to believe my public persona contains bad data, although this fact has not caused me any real problems to date. I realize it could be worse; no acute damage has been done to me financially or legally. For now, finding out I’m a digital man is sort of funny.

Sort of.

Image used per Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution License. Photograph by DaveBleasdale.