International Writers Magazine: Comment
He has nothing to
hide, he tells me, but everything to fear, for the world is out to get
you. So its no great surprise that he is constantly warning me to
take the same precautions.
web, it's secrets and Me
My dad, with
all due respect, is crazy paranoid. He guards his PIN number with
his life at ATMs, covering the keypad with his wallet and free hand,
while dialling the numbers covertly with the other. He shreds bank
statements and receipts, then distributes the shredded paper between
all the different bins in the house, to make it harder to re-piece
the documents. He cuts up all his old credit cards into tiny tiny
pieces, then puts them in a margarine tub in a drawer which contains
all their dead predecessors, and I swear he will ask to be buried
with it, literally taking the secrets locked within their chips
to his grave.
I dont, I have to admit. I happily use internet banking, a system
which, so they tell me, is secure in practice, but utterly hackable. I
merrily chuck bank statements in the bin without even scribbling over
the account number, and I freely punch my PIN into the keypad with abandon
every time I shop with my debit card, or use a bank machine. Thus far,
I havent been used, abused or exploited, but I am coming to realise
that with my attitude in this day and age its only a matter of time.
My father turns fifty this month, and he has never had that sort of problem.
He watches his back in cyberspace too, only using trusted Internet sites
like Hotmail and Amazon, and he gives the bare minimum of information
away. He isnt on Facebook, or MySpace. If you were to "google"
my father assuming a search for "Steve" would return
my father rather than someone else you would be able to find out
very little about him. And thats exactly how he wants it.
I remember him helping me set up my Hotmail account at the age of eleven;
how he sat me down for a talk beforehand and explained the dangers of
the big bad net, and how careful I had to be, and how he nearly aborted
the whole thing when I had to give my address and telephone number to
register. I followed his advice and was, and am still, I think, very careful
on the web. But as I was buying bus tickets to go home next weekend, I
found myself giving yet another company my personal details, and I began
to wonder exactly how many people had my mobile phone number stored in
In my head I tallied up the obvious ones, then began rooting around for
the not so. Soon, I literally lost count of the number of places that
had my personal details. Train companies, airlines, online merchandise
sellers, discussion boards, sites that had offered free samples during
my trigger happy "free stuff" stage, social networking sites,
UCAS, the government, former employers, institutions that I was a part
of. It all began to add up. Was I being too willy-nilly with my information?
I decided to have a further root around on the internet, to see how much
about me you could find out if you had a mind to.
I started my "cyber-stalking" experiment on Facebook, the current
hot item in the social networking trend. I realised as I scanned the page
how much information I divulged about myself almost without realising;
just from the top profile alone a stranger could have found out that which
university Im at, where I live, when my birthday is, my middle name
and just how devout an atheist I am. Worse still, the page openly declares
my relationship with my boyfriend, and even links to his profile for further
investigation. From his profile (as from mine) postal and email addresses
and telephone numbers could be taken, former schools and places of work
profiled, and photos viewed. And we only have the bare minimum of applications
I scrolled through my friends profiles, wondering if they were aware,
as I was becoming, of the vast amounts of information on this site, just
sitting there waiting to be plucked. With over eight thousand different
programs that can be added to your page, any one of them could provide
a stalker, or even someone with legitimate intentions such as a prospective
employer, with incriminating information about you. One lets you put up
a list of "what youve done, and with whom", while another
allows you to share your class timetable with the world.
I began to see that if you "googled" me again, assuming
you got me and not the crime writer or anyone else youd probably
find a lot of information if you knew how to go about looking for it.
In fact, someone could probably produce a very convincing "Laura
Getting away from Facebook, I considered other sites I visited regularly.
Not everybody uses web forums these days, but I am on one daily to chat
with about twenty folk that Ive developed a real cyber friendship
with over the years. On the "mysd.org Chatter" a real piece
of me is on display for anyone who cares to look. Theres a mini-biog,
which details the fact that Ive lived in four different countries,
and what kind of dog I have, on top of other information. If anyone created
a user name and password for the forum, and skulked about for a bit reading
my posts, they could follow almost every event thats happened to
me in the last three and a half years, as well as discovering some "secret
confessions" that may not commonly be known, and every random thought
thats popped into my head, thanks to the ever wonderful random thread.
I realised too, that I "talk" to these people almost every day
and havent met any of them in person mostly because they
are all Americans. I trust the people on the Chatter not to be sex perverts
or identity cons, as my father would assume them to be. I take them at
face value, but CalAnkh could be anyone, from anywhere or Orange (the
new kid) could be someone from here who heard me talk about the Chatter
and decided they wanted to get to know me better in a roundabout way.
Equally, these people tell me things without having the vaguest idea who
I am in "real life".
Would I stop going on the Chatter though, just because what I discovered
scares me? No. I enjoy the conversations we have, and I trust that these
people are who they say they are and that they mean me no harm. I see
it as a secure space where I can share my views and thoughts, and will
continue to do so until it is proved otherwise. Hopefully, if it is it
will not be to my detriment. Would I stop using Facebook, now that I have
discovered just how much information on me is available on it? No, but
I did increase my security settings, and in future will be even more vigilant
about what I put out there. Equally, I will aim to not give away my details
left right and centre without just cause.
But as much as I strive to be careful, I refuse to become like my father,
constantly looking over my shoulder for the person trying to cheat me
or do me harm. I assume the Data Protection Act and all the other laws
set in place to protect me will work. Possibly this relaxed attitude will
come back to bite me one day, but so long as I have nothing to hide, I
need to be able to trust the world a little bit.
© Laura Patrica November 2007
green_ied_dragon at hotmail.com
Laura is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth and is the editor of Pugwash
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