Digital footprints: helping or harming?

Much of the conversation about our online presences (at least as regards our careers) has often focused on the dangers of embarrassing Facebook updates getting back to our employers, or putting off potential future employers. This is a worthwhile conversation to have; it’s important to make sure that our privacy settings are properly calibrated, and that we are not shooting ourselves in the foot by mixing public and private.

However, there are two points I’d like to make about this. The first is that I believe that pretty soon, it won’t matter all that much. Partly because people are becoming more familiar with the technology so as not to say stupid things publicly (danah boyd points out that a lot of online activity among young people is in “code” so as not to alert the wrong people to what they are talking about). But also partly because it will matter less the more public life becomes on the internet. I don’t think there’s much we can do to stop that. Our data is being sold very cheaply indeed by Google and Facebook – a slightly different conversation, but all part and parcel of larger numbers of people knowing what we do without us really being aware of it.

The corollary to that is that I think employers will care much less about what a young person did in their past, and more about the reviews that are posted about their work on various sites. The flip side of this new visibility is that community-built trust systems are developing to make sure that people are doing what they say they do – review systems. Not all are foolproof – Tripadvisor can be “gamed” – but Airbnb is pretty solid.

The second point is that despite the risks, the internet also provides plenty of opportunities to harness its communicative power, and the power to showcase. And that’s a really important point that is left out of the conversation. I think the real way to manage our digital footprint is not so much to police ourselves so very rigidly, but in fact to ensure that there is overall much more positive stuff out there about us than negative.

What are we missing? How can we make ourselves not only more visible in the right ways, but showcase more authentically what we are about – what we care about, what we’re good at, what we would like to contribute to in the future? Once we direct the conversation there, I think we will stop worrying so much about who did what on Saturday night.

You can’t ban cryptography.

Even before the recent attacks, Theresa May has been keen to “regulate cyberspace”.  One of the ways in which she wants to do this is by ensuring that there is a backdoor in any internet security system.  Just to give an idea of scope, every site you visit, every service you register for, mailing list you sign up to is encrypted to prevent hackers, thieves of various stripes, and other malicious agents from accessing your computer.  Through May’s back door, government security agents would be able to get into any system to investigate what information is being exchanged.  Your search history is already logged with your service provider as of the Snoopers Charter from November 2016, available to the police.

Aside from sounding like an Orwellian nightmare, let’s just think this through for a second.  If there is an inbuilt way for the government to access your various accounts and look at what information you are sharing, it means that there is one point of failure for malicious agents to exploit, which they know is there and eventually – inevitably – will find ways to break into.

If only for this reason (and there are all sorts of others, like that pesky free speech and privacy stuff), I’m convinced of three things.

  1. We shouldn’t.
  2. We probably can’t in any meaningful way.
  3. It would probably make things worse.

Here is an excellent blog post by Cory Doctorow about why it’s not feasible.  In summary, he’s saying that the sort of implementation necessary to make it work is impossible given the scale of the task, and that a reduced version is basically not even worth doing because it would leave plenty of other ways for perpetrators to act.  More ambitious means of restricting might involve something like the systems that China uses, by controlling what operating systems can run on your computer, which have built-in ways of restricting what you can access via the internet.  This would be extremely intensive (and expensive) to set up and it would be impossible to let you run any operating system that allows you to install programs freely (i.e. any system that currently isn’t on a hand-held device – goodbye Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux).

If this all seems a little divorced from the future of careers, we need only remember that the internet is inextricably embedded into the way we live, communicate, and work.

We submit personal information all the time on the web, including payment information, names, addresses, telephone numbers  – effectively all someone would need to steal your identity.  Let’s say you are a young entrepreneur and you set up your internet business with an option to pay through Paypal, or you set up your own payment system.  A back door would not only mean that there is a potential vulnerability for a malicious agent to exploit, but (and here’s the big problem) also every person who has access to the backdoor has to be trustworthy.  (And there’s not much hope of that; we’ve already seen examples of abuses of the Investigatory Powers Act to use surveillance to catch perpetrators of minor infractions.)  We have no way of knowing who those people are, how many have access, or how they have been selected.  We also have no way of knowing how people are deemed to be a risk.

Aside from the ethical and safety issues associated with these courses of actions, the main problem is that this won’t do what Theresa May wants it to. If the internet torrenting site Piratebay has taught us anything, it’s that trying to stop anyone from doing anything on the internet is more or less impossible without fully embracing totalitarianism.

There are already plenty of ways in which the internet is not free; our data is constantly for sale.  It would be better if we didn’t sell it wholesale down the tube.