Privacy & Personal Branding: think like an engineer

Since my middle son has been in engineering school (he graduated this month from UVA), I regularly pick his brain about engineering things. Stuff I know I need to pay attention to but am too lazy to go learn on my own, like online privacy. What are the creators of technology being taught about personal privacy? The guys who invent all the software and tools we’re using today. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

Moving in the fast lane: watch for the good and the bad

As technology change happens in the fast lane, we learn as we go. Technology is moving much faster than we humans are capable of managing. We are adopting new ways of communicating (Facebook, Twitter, text messaging) with little understanding of the possibilities for good and bad, with few norms and rules to guide people’s behavior to productive uses.

Last week I watched Google’s Legal Counsel, Nicole Wong on Fora.tv (a great resource if you haven’t checked them out). She talked about the unexpected dangers of Twitter. One of the technical advantages of Twitter is it can be used to make large groups of people congregate, very quickly. What should Twitter do if people use Twitter to start a flash mob to hurt people or property? Nobody knows the answer.

On the flip side, I read a blog post last week about how Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame, used Twitter to raise $850,000 for a fan who needed a heart transplant. How cool is that?

The individual rules

Innovations in technology benefit the individual. More power gets invested in the individual as technology advances. Anyone can create and share digital content – for little to no money.

Ten years ago, when my engineer son was 13, digital content was not on his radar. Today, a 13-year could produce a personal media network after school in his bedroom and earn money from Google Adsense. The upside of empowering individuals is great strides in creativity and innovation. The downside is individuals need to take responsibility to protect themselves, specifically online.

The Numerati know every move you make

You have no privacy. Every time you use a credit card, log onto the internet, databases start humming, aggregating and analyzing us. At work, the same thing happens in pursuit of making us more productive.

My training as a sociologist has heightened my sensitivity to claims of conspiracy theory. So I’ve talked with my engineer son a lot about this issue. There’s no Dr. Evil trying to take over the world. But there is a new class of people that engineering schools are producing – The Numerati, those who make a living analyzing data. Take a look at a great article Businessweek ran a few years ago, Math will rock your world.

Personal privacy is an oxymoron so focus on personal branding

We give up our privacy, our data about our daily behaviors, in exchange for customization, convenience and speed. This way of life is not going away. It will only accelerate.

Stephen Baker, author of The Numerati, suggests that you get beyond thinking only of erasing cookies on your computer and start understanding the risks and benefits in a math ruled world. Here’s an interview of the author talking about some implications for personal branding.

When I do my webinars on personal branding, I always get asked about online privacy. Aside from avoiding doing stupid things (like posting inappropriate photos on Facebook for others to share with the world), there are proactive things you can do to ensure your web presence is being managed. First, you need to ask yourself “how much effort am I willing to make to protect my privacy, my personal brand, the Brand of Me?” Here are a few things I do…

Set Google Alerts with your name and other identifying information about you. You’ll get an email letting you know what Google Search says about you that day or week.

If you are self-employed, do contract work or own a small business, stop using your Social Security Number (SSN) for identification purposes. The federal government requires that you have a tax identity number, a TIN, a Taxpayer Identification Number. It doesn’t have to be your SSN. Essentially, you have two choices – use your SSN or use an Employer Identification Number (EIN). Getting an EIN is simple. Just visit the IRS here and apply online.

Facebook: take the time to set your privacy settings. You can be very private, semi-private or open to the public. I know it works. My engineer son blocks me from his Facebook page.

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Andy Oram

Well, your son has pulled ahead of many of his peers in his
consciousness of privacy issues, even though you seem to be the one
against whom he directs his caution on Facebook. I’m not an engineer,
but I might be able to offer a few more concepts that might be useful
to GovLoopers. Apologies if my comments don’t reflect some fast-moving
technological advances.

Most web sites you visit know you only as (or whatever),
not Nancy Dailey. How much personal data they associate with depends on what other sites they hook up with.

If you have an account on Google, Yahoo!, etc. it can track what you
do on its own site and add that information to your account. Google
does not, so far as I know share its data with Yahoo! or vice
versa. Competitors aren’t likely to.

And I don’t believe Google really crunches all the data it gets from a
Gmail account to form a picture of you. I think they’re sensitive
enough to know that they could freak people out if that was
discovered. It does serve up ads based on the content, but I think
whatever you put in Gmail stays in Gmail.

As you’ve pointed out, data mining really batters down privacy walls.
And one way web sites do that is by sharing information about what ads
you click on. Several companies collect that information and share it
with businesses; the best known in DoubleClick, and a lot of people
were understandably upset when Google acquired it a couple years ago.

There are a hundred other issues one could explore. My favorite site
for keeping up with privacy is the Electronic Privacy Information
Center (http://epic.org/). Some government agencies might feel miffed
if they’ve been the target of EPIC complaints or campaigns, but it’s a
wonderful group of people who offer important insights.

Here are a couple articles of mine that might interest you:

Looking under what rises to the top: personal information in online

Mark Boelte

Although you do not always have a choice in government service, try to avoid using your real name in e-mail addresses. I work with the public every day in my job, and find it amazing how many people use their real full name and other personal information for e-mail addresses. If your real name is your e-mail address at work, create an anonymous e-mail account with any of the free services (Yahoo, gMail, HotMail, etc.) and do any personal business on the anonymous account.

If your e-mails are intercepted, they cannot associate your real name with whatever was in the e-mail.