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You are Your Own Big Brother
Your privacy on the Web

Recently a friend of mine whose web site I manage, needed to remove a reference to a former important employee (not the Vice President), let's call him Al Gore for now, from his website. I did a couple of web searches to see where this Al Gore was mentioned across the web. I found the one reference to Al on the relevant site, and also others that were generated by various spiders such as and These spiders crawl the web, cataloguing information about companies and sites including information on the people involved, contacts, etc.

I also found a site called which archives pages at least every few days, and allows access to them once they are six months old. Here you can find every variation of your pages. For example, the home page of my first site,, is updated daily as it displays the current date! has many of these pages for anyone's perusal. It seems that this site is not spidered by the search engines. If it were, then search engine results would be worthless.

It's actually quite interesting to see how websites have developed over the years. Take a look at Google from December 1998.

There are also websites, like, which give you information about companies, all kinds of useful things like who started them, sources of angels and other investment capital, directors, and company aims. I think this openness that the internet gives you is great. You want to do business with a company or a person, you can do your own background checking. Most of the information is available on the web, these sites just bring all of it into a common format, summarising it for you and linking you to it.

Problems may arise when you worked for one company and now do something else. Your past more than likely is imprinted forever somewhere on the web. You may have posted something on a (blog, social, networking) site as a politically active student, and few years later it will come back to haunt you when you are looking for a job. It's hard to shake off.

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One of the worst offenders in this saga are online social networks. These are springing up like mushrooms after the proverbial rain. I'm not criticising them -- they're great and probably still underutilised, definitely by the business community. The best known sites are Facebook and MySpace. These and others provide a great and useful service. They bring people together, make communications easier and efficient, allow information to move around freely and easily. But people seem to "bare all" on their social network sites. They tell their friends "secret" things that can spread far and wide, because friends have friends who have friends. People communicate. Things get around. These systems are designed for ease in disseminating information -- all kinds of information. Even within the so-called security of your own closed group -- every system can be broken, so potentially this information may leak out to the public domain. And once on the web, is there forever.

If you tell us that your new puppy is called Cheney and then set that as the answer to your security question, you have revealed to the world a part of your access key. People leave all kinds of hints on the networks about themselves. This can be used to compromise their security or personality.

Bad social habits are passed on via these sites. Pro-anorexia websites offering tips on extreme dieting are nothing new. The growth of this information on social networks is a disturbing new twist. They are now in the reach of a much wider audience, who does not need to search hard to find the information. Also the networks allow people to reinforce these "bad habits" by offering encouragement, keeping each other strong. MySpace has a group with over 1,000 members called "pro-ana", short for pro-anorexia, which states under its rules, "no people trying to recover, it ruins our motivation". Facebook has a number of extreme dieting groups, including "Yes, I have an eating disorder. No, it's not your problem".

This raises the question of whether these networks need to be or should be moderated. But then you are stifling freedom of speech, the basic essence, the oxygen, of these sites. And who will the moderators be? On what basis will they censor?

Credit card usage provides another great way of tracking people in a number of ways. Credit card companies for years have been adding advertisements to your credit card statement. These are based on your purchase history. The commercials are designed to be for things in which you are most likely to be interested, perhaps from competitors to your current custom.

But not just learning about your buying habits, data gleaned from your credit card use also allows for the mapping of your physical movements. Now this may be useful if you need an alibi (how can you say I was hunting outside Albuquerque with you when I used my card twice that day in Washington D.C.) but I don't think I want some unknown credit card and advertising company bureaucrats knowing where I've been, what I bought and how much it cost me, and potentially extrapolating what I may have been doing there.

But many people are happy to provide this information directly themselves when they tell their "friends" what they are thinking, where they are going, in what they are interested.

Now if you are smart, you can use all of this to your advantage. You can tailor (I don't even mean deceitfully -- selectively is more the case) your image to the way you want to be perceived. You can present yourself in the light in which you want to be seen.

But the dark side is that people can use exactly the same methodology to build a totally bogus, non-existent personality, that takes on a life of it's own, and potentially can be used for fraudulent activity. In a case before the courts for manslaughter, a Missouri women is alleged to have caused enough anguish to a 13 year old girl, following the break up of a fake relationship with a sham young man's MySpace profile, for the girl to commit suicide by hanging. Psychiatrists have been presenting papers at meetings discussing the effect on a world where social life is increasing built around on-line social networks.

George Orwell (pen name of Eric Arthur Blair) in his famous book, Nineteen Eighty-Four [he sent the final typescript to his friends, Secker and Warburg, on 4th December 1948 -- notice the similarity between the book title and when the book was written] coined the term Big Brother is Watching, there referring to surveillance by the totalitarian super-state. Now however Big Brother really is upon us, but it could be that we are projecting the information to the entire world about ourselves, ourselves without bureaucratic intervention.

Menachem Kuchar, 21st July, 2008    

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