In November 2008, the French magazine Le Tigre published "Marc L.," a portrait of a 29-year-old who worked for an architecture firm near Bordeaux. The author had never met his subject but needed only a few minutes of Web searching to discover a large number of personal details, right down to his girlfriend’s name, her parents’ address, and what he did on his last vacation.
The article became a sensation in France, and the real “Marc L.” wrote Le Tigre to say that not only had he recognised himself, but so had his employer. Happily, he had not suffered adverse consequences. But you may not be so lucky. Millions of people leave sensitive personal information all over the web without realising it – and that can compromise personal privacy.
Oddly, many people already knew that. A 2009 survey by Harris Interactive for the ESOMAR research group found that 91 per cent of respondents, half of whom were registered on at least one social network, were aware that the personal details they posted were likely to be used without their knowledge. And yet they put the information there anyway. The poll was a good example of the so-called “privacy paradox”, the public’s impulse to broadcast personal details on social networks, but at the same time to demand protection against disclosure. They want friends to know their intimate secrets, but not spammers, scammers or prospective employers.
“Whenever a new technology is introduced, there is a moral panic,” says Dominique Cardon, a sociologist at Orange Labs and a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Movements in Paris. But the Internet is probably the first invention to generate such an intense debate over privacy. Vigilance and education can help. “Those who spend much of their social life on the Net have learned to master the tools,” wrote Jean-Marc Manach in 2009, a journalist blogger who specialises in digital identity1. “They know more or less how to protect their private lives. Digital identity is a construction that we must learn to control. “
To manage your digital identity, you first need to know what parts of it end up on the Net and how. Many users are unaware, for example, that when they register on a site, make a purchase or simply surf, they leave crumbs of themselves behind.
The unique number that identifies each computer connected to the Web. Some computers share the same number.
A small text file sent by a web server and stored on your computer by your browser. Cookies can remember the operations you performed when you last visited a site. E-commerce sites use them to maintain user preferences (the options you ticked when registering) so you don’t have to re-enter them. Your browser gives you the option of erasing them.
An advertising link that pops up when you type a keyword into a search engine. Advertisers buy relevant keywords so their sponsored links appear higher up in the search results than do normal, un-sponsored links.
This article has been adapted from “La première crise de conscience d’Internet", Regards sur le Numérique 3.3, April 2010 and re-published in the 8th edition of the Futures Magazine.