I recently asked one of my children to search my name online to find out what bubbled to the surface. It turned out to be more-or-less what I expected: my Facebook public profile, some comments I posted in the Globe and Mail, some student feedback on RateMyProfessor.com, and so on.
I wanted to know what a search would find because I recently signed on again with Match.com. (I know, I said I’d never do it again. Don’t remind me!) Only a few years ago, it was considered inappropriate to do a background search on someone without first asking for their approval. The polite thing to do was to give a person a “heads up.” Apparently, the rules have changed. Now, it has become more likely that someone will do some homework before meeting me.
A man with whom I had exchanged a couple of emails told me that he had “done his research” on me and found all the sites I mentioned. He also found my late husband’s obituary! That, it seems to me, is going too far. I had another family member try to find that site by using only my name and city, and she couldn’t find any reference to my husband. Some people, apparently, either have more luck or more avenues for research.
The National Security Agency is being questioned about their over-eager collection of data regarding our telephone and email habits, and they didn’t seem to realize they had crossed a line. The judiciary seems similarly perplexed. One judge has described their data collection as “almost Orwellian” while another judge considers it an appropriate adaptation “to confront a new enemy.”
When I first considered this metadata, I said, essentially, that it didn’t bother me much. Now, though, I wonder if perhaps it has caused a shift in the public perception as to what is and is not acceptable behavior. If the NSA can know so much about all of us, then perhaps it’s ok for everyone to find out whatever they can about anyone else. Forget metadata. We can find out almost anything that has been put on a computer. The new enemy, it seems to me, is easy access to information.
The whole concept of privacy has been gradually changing all my life, to the point where the word “privacy” no longer means the same thing that it did when I was a child. Now it means putting a miniature e-padlock on digitized information. Today’s generation of children will have no experience of what it means to have a life that is truly free from intrusion. Even ordinary unexciting lives are now made virtually public. We are potentially all as famous as tabloid stars, but without the rewards. When Andy Warhol imagined everyone having fifteen minutes of fame, he probably didn’t think those minutes would be stored for ever on the Internet.
I still don’t care if the government knows how many calls I make, but I do care when a relative stranger digs into my personal history without my consent. That’s just not polite.