Monday, December 17, 2007

Digital Footprints Report from Pew

Click on the title to this post to connect to read and download the new report released yesterday at 4 PM by the Pew Interent & American Life Project. The report shows the progress our culture is making into the digital world. The subtitle of the report is "Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency."

One of the key findings (and sort of duh, but worth articulating), is that the nature of identity is changing in the Web 2.0 environment. People's name, address, phone used to be the basic public info about anybody -- look in the phone book or the organization directory and find these. More recently, e-mail address was added (or sometimes, took the place of a phone number). The Pew study also notes that such public information often persists longer than people might think.

Now, with Web 2.0 spaces like MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, the kinds of information available is changing. Most people who use these social networking services are aware of the access they are giving, and most think about controlling what access is there. But some folks are getting unpleasant surprises, like students who recently found impacts on their hiring caused by either their own postings to such services or postings by others. There are also datamining companies selling information on individuals, from phone numbers to credit ratings, these companies often have more information than we would like.

As the Pew study states,

...general questions about privacy do not capture the vast array of data points that make up “personal information” in the age of social media. Name, address, and phone number are just the basics. Social networking and photo sites make it easy to find someone’s image online, even if it was meant to be kept private. ...

Public comments on blogs, discussion groups, and listservs are also archived and searchable. People’s screen names can become like a secondary identification, often overshadowing a person’s offline notoriety or exposing a CEO’s predilection for defending his own company through unattributed postings. John Battelle has referred to this “clickstream exhaust” we leave behind as our “digital footprints,” the term that inspired the title and appears throughout this report.

Beyond the footprints visible to the casual searcher, even more information is kept in corporate databases. The five most popular search engines routinely archive a user’s search terms, their computer’s address, and the unique identifier for their Web browser for 13-18 months.
We are just beginning to understand what information is available about us, and how easily it is to find. In the past, it was a time-consuming and difficult task to pull together all the information about each of us that resides in official records. The Internet, databases and increasingly powerful, easy-to-use search engines are changing that.

I have to say it gives me pause sometimes to consider what I have written on this blog, and how permanent it turns out to be. I don't think I regret anything I've said, but I guess I'll find out. I suppose that's what the Pew report is all about.

The image decorating this posting is a poster you can buy at, actually a beach on the north shore of Oahu, where the surfing ought to pretty big right now.

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