Hungry, deep, and astoundingly preservative, the World Wide Web is a peat bog of private data. As the grade school Internet Safety Seminar saying goes, once it’s on the Internet, it’s there forever. While that doesn’t necessarily mean every piece of information you ever post online will come back into your life like a grotesque bog body, it does mean that every time you post something online, you run the risk that it will come back into your life—like a grotesque bog body, tapping its detached femur on the drywall to the beat of YouTube comments made by a thirteen-year-old self.
The long life of online personal data is understandably a source of anxiety for many Internet users. Other than friends and employers who might encounter evidence of a less-than-savoury history, data brokers—companies that collect personal information from private and public sources—have seized the opportunities endemic to the Internet. Using information from social media sites, transaction records, purchase histories, and more, data brokers create personal information profiles to sell to companies engaged in targeted advertising, fraud detection, and research. In some cases, data brokers also sell the information to law enforcement agencies since privacy laws may prevent the agencies from collecting the data on their own. Some data brokers operate people search sites, website databases where individuals can pay to find personal information about others—usually advertised as tools for reconnecting with old friends or relatives. Indeed, people search sites allow for the rekindling of relationships that in an earlier era would’ve faded irrevocably into obscurity. On the other hand, criticisms leveled at people search sites point at their potential facilitation of stalking and other forms of harassment.
But is our loss of privacy such a purely negative thing? Every era comes with its changes, and data brokers might be just the thing we need for this modern age of emotional distance and disengagement. Why are we willing to input our interests into online quizzes and our addresses into band merch sites, but unwilling to share with the people that populate our world?
In a 2013 essay for The New York Times, author Tim Kreider wrote, “if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” This quote later achieved memetic status, mostly on Tumblr, as a resonant summation of the trial of love. We wish to be loved for ourselves, but we’re afraid to show all our multitudes. To be judged for the grotesque bog bodies of our history is indeed a mortifying ordeal, but only with that degree of emotional openness and vulnerability will we succeed at being loved. Why insist on the privacy of your gender, sexuality, ethnic background, hobbies, emails, address, phone number, favourite Vocaloid, education, purchase history, browsing information, friend network, Urban Dictionary queries, criminal records, relationship history, children, income, financial status, religious affiliations, court records, and employment details? What do we gain by hiding ourselves from the world?
Anyone who has seen the acclaimed documentary film [sic] The Social Network should understand the loneliness from which the social media giant Facebook emerged. As the 2010 film deftly portrays, the journey to Facebook’s success was marked by interpersonal strain and conflicts between friends or business partners. Maybe Jesse Eisenberg—nay, Mark Zuckerberg, cognizant of the desperate sinkhole of isolation, sells the private data Facebook collects for our own sake, not his. After all, what interpersonal conflicts can’t be improved by just a little more knowledge, a little more understanding?
For years, we’ve accepted the conveniences of the Internet into our lives, but not into our hearts. Why cling to the antiquated standards of privacy that defined the pre-Internet era? Why treat the Internet like threatening Other, some eater of hearts? By tearing open the doors to our private information, data brokers expedite our journey to being known for who we are. Only then, exposed, bog bodies and all, is there love. I can think of nothing more romantic than that.
Why insist on the privacy of your gender, sexuality, ethnic background, hobbies, emails, address, phone number, favourite Vocaloid, education, purchase history, browsing information, friend network, Urban Dictionary queries, criminal records, relationship history, children, income, financial status, religious affiliations, court records, and employment details? What do we gain by hiding ourselves from the world?