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Why You Can't Escape Your Digital Identity

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By Daniel Wigmore Shepherd

American comedian Richard Jeni once said "I always look for a woman with a tattoo. I see a woman with a tattoo, and I'm thinking, okay, here's a gal capable of making a decision she'll regret in the future." My parents always told me that a tattoo was the best way to tell people I was stupid without moving my lips, their rationale being that the image etched upon your skin was permanent, visible and open to judgement. They also said that tattoos were classless and that I could get one the day dolphins get fat pregnant teens tattooed on their lower dorsal fin.

Well if you tweeted, used Facebook or commented in a forum, you just added another little doodle to your massive sprawling digital tattoo. Just how pretty that doodle is depends on the content of your tweet, status update or comment. If you tweet 'Neil Armstrong should lose the medals he got for being the first man on the moon cos he uses steroids, am I rite', well done you just scrawled a nice big 90s cartoon/videogame character on your forehead and the world knows you're a nitwit. Post a racist/sexist/Bernard Manning joke that is somehow meant to be 'ironic', that's a swastika on each knuckle. Essentially making an offensive/stupid Facebook update or tweet and not expecting it to haunt you to your grave is like getting a prostate exam from Edward Scissorhands and not expecting it to hurt.

Just because the internet is large and crammed full of dickheads vying for attention doesn't mean you are anonymous. Nor does it mean that there is no-one out there who has a vested interest to check up on your digital footprint. Employers checking that you're not bragging about pulling a sickie, governments who want to check that it isn't you who keeps posting all those dead cats to Samantha Cameron, etc. This means everything you do online can have consequence.

Here is a list of people who got fired from their jobs for online faux pas. In one case a teacher got fired just for being tagged in a photo with a drink in each hand smiling. In another case, a woman was merely fired because she had aspects in her personal life that would be inappropriate to bring into her professional life. This is the entire problem of your digital footprint: it bridges the gaps between all spheres of your life, including the spheres you want to keep separate. In the US, many companies and government agencies demand access to your Facebook profile as part of the interview (luckily a few states are thinking of passing laws to ban this practice).

Then there are the numerous instances in which people have been arrested for comments posted online. The case of the numerous Facebook and Twitter users who were arrested during the London riots for encouraging the rioters. The case of Paul Chambers who was arrested under the Terrorism Act after he tweeted "Robin Hood airport is closed, you've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" Again, these are things that if they were said privately, would pass unnoticed, but due to the public and permanent nature of the internet became incriminating evidence.

The most amusing case is that of US Representative Anthony Weiner who sent a picture of his, ummm namesake, to a woman via his Twitter account. He had to resign from Congress, with what was hopefully his tail between his legs.

The realm of politics is where the consequences of social media use, and making ones personal/private identity publicly accessible, will be most spectacular. Think of the political damage that Bullingdon photo did to David Cameron. Imagine what would happen if a candidate was found to have made a sexist comment online or to have been tagged in a photo dressed up as a Muslim terrorist for a bar crawl. And that's only British politics. American politics is heavily reliant on ad-hominen arguments (attacking someone personally, often from a moral perspective). Imagine what the 2024 election will be like. 'Senator Brookes, you said in your campaign speech that freedom is the sweetest thing ever, but in 2007 you posted that paprika Pringles were 'the sweetest thing evaaaa'. Which is it? Can we trust you to stick to your guns?'

Then there is the issue of what happens to your digital identity after you die. Approximately a quarter of a million Facebook users will die this year. With cheap information storage our digital souls could potentially live forever for future archaeologists to ogle over. This possibility has split many people into two camps: the preservationists and the deletionists.

An example of the former would be Jason Scott, a film maker who upon hearing that Yahoo was going to delete a large portion of the pages in Geocities, decided to create a 641 gigabyte file of saved Geocities data. People who spilled hours into making a pertinent, unique or awesome Geocities page will likely thank Scott. People who made a comparison page for Japanese love pillows because they were feeling lonely and going through an 'anime stage' will likely not be so thankful.

There is now software which allows users to extract personal data from social networks. The reasoning being the existence and availability of this data is subject to the company's, not the creator's, whims. On the other end of the spectrum is X-Pire, a start-up which launched a software package to attach an expiry date to your data. So a compromising photo taken one's youth can be gone by the time you reach a respectable age. The 2011 EU data protection strategy argued for the implementation of a 'right to be forgotten', i.e. the right of individuals to have their data no longer processed and deleted when they are no longer needed for legitimate purposes.

Should the trend towards deletionism continue we might, if we are very lucky, find ourselves in a situation where embarrassing photos and comments can be forgotten. But until then, be wary of what you are tattooing on your head.