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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

The web, it's secrets and Me
Laura Patrica

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.
He has nothing to hide, he tells me, but everything to fear, for the world is out to get you. So it’s no great surprise that he is constantly warning me to take the same precautions.

I don’t, 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 haven’t been used, abused or exploited, but I am coming to realise that with my attitude in this day and age it’s 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 isn’t 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 that’s 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 their databases.

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 I’m 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 installed!

I scrolled through my friend’s 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 you’ve 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 – you’d 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 " imitation.

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 I’ve developed a real cyber friendship with over the years. On the " Chatter" a real piece of me is on display for anyone who cares to look. There’s a mini-biog, which details the fact that I’ve 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 that’s 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 that’s popped into my head, thanks to the ever wonderful random thread.

I realised too, that I "talk" to these people almost every day and haven’t 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
Laura is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth and is the editor of Pugwash

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