When we go online we leave behind a digital footprint; information about what we have accessed and posted. This can be used by individuals, organisations and governments, to assemble a picture of the persona we adopt on the web and, potentially, what we are like in the real world.
So, to what extent should we be concerned – and should we create different online identities to protect ourselves?
If a shop assistant remembers me, and recommends something that I might be interested in, then I’d regard this as good customer service. But when a computer does the same, people argue that it’s an invasion of their privacy.
Further, if a computer scans my e-mails looking for key words, such as names of chemicals used to make a bomb, then I don’t object because I know that this is done as a form of crime prevention but many see this as a perceived erosion of our freedoms.
So what are the threats that might persuade me to create duplicate online identies?
- Identity theft – where criminals use spam, guess passwords and use computer viruses to access your bank accounts, or clone your identity. The FFA estimates that in the UK alone £247.6 million was lost to credit card fraud in the first six months of 2014.
- Loss of privacy – where the information you post is used for purposes other than that you intended. However, work is being done to protect our privacy online, for example, new laws are imminent outlawing posting “revenge porn”.
- Loss of religious and political freedoms – when authoritarian states track electronic communication to curtail protest.
The last point, while not a concern in the UK is emphasised in this Amnesty International posting. Also a number of Iranians were arrested for recording and posting a version of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”:
Of course, in reality we can’t avoid creating different online identities; the persona you present on LinkdIn will be different from that on Facebook. But should you go further and deliberately create separate, fragmented persona?
I have explored the advantages and disadvantages of having multiple online identities in a Slideshare presentation:
So, living the UK, should you deliberately fabricate separate online identities? Personally, I don’t think so, but I do follow these tips:
I agree with Costa and Torres: “If we are to encourage people to develop several personas, are we encouraging a responsible environment, or are we creating new playgrounds? Furthermore, how much can we trust a person who ‘owns’ different characters online?” Emphasising these concerns, this article by Awais Rashid talks about internet bullies hiding behind false online identities.
In a sense this is nothing new, we have always had the opportunity change the way that we behave to suit the situation. But pretending to be someone you’re not – online or in the real world – is, in my opinion, not genuine and therefore should not be condoned.
An interesting topic – I suspect we will see very different views.
Christopher Soghoian: Government surveillance — this is just the beginning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrxDrpi1XNU
Cristina Costa and Ricardo Torres, To be or not to be, the importance of Digital Identity in the networked society, Revista Educação, Formação & Tecnologias, n.º extra (Abril, 2011): pp. 47‐53.p, (p. 51)
FFA, Customers Urged to be Vigilant as Fraudsters Increase Spam Attacks, http://www.financialfraudaction.org.uk/cms/assets/1/2014%20h1%20fraud%20figures%20-%20final.pdf
Awais Rashid, Director of Security, Lancaster Research Centre at Lancaster University, With the Right Tech, Online Bullies can be Outsmarted
Amnesty International, The Internet and Human Rights, http://www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns/irrepressible-info