Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Identity management and the internet

Today I learned something new while listening to NPR--a favored source of news and trivia. They aired a report on "identity management firms." Identity management firms can be hired to sanitize your internet identity. For example, if you, or someone else, published something embarrassing on the net, such as a photo of yourself under the influence or in a naughty pose, or, bloggers take note, in your blog or my-space account, you can hire these folks to try to get it off the net again. The tactics are varied--nicely asking the owner of the site in question to remove your information, having a lawyer do the same (less nice), or burying your link by swamping search engines like Google so that the embarrassing one is way down the list. These measures (and maybe hiring these firms) become necessary because potential employers are searching the net for information that might alter their decision to hire you. An example was given on NPR of a potential hire for a corporate executive position who was turned down because he had an internet gambling habit.
What about other things people post about? It strikes me that a lot of people post about their mental illness. I have seen a number of posts by individuals with Bipolar Disorder. There are moms who post about their family and mention they have a child with a mental illness. People mention they take psychiatric medications or see a therapist. Or people openly post that they are gay. Or pro-choice. Or have an illness that is no one's business.
We may choose to share this information with strangers and friends but not with future employers or with people who have to offer us health insurance. A small business may not hire you because you are mentally ill or have diabetes because they know your health insurance may cost them too much. Or you may not be hired because you take a stance on the "wrong" side of the political divide.
No matter how hard we try, it is very difficult to post anonymously. I keep this in mind all the time as I post. I'm waiting for a patient to tell me that they ran across my blog. And I try hard not to post anything that I wouldn't tell them anyway if they asked me directly.
I personally don't believe this means that we should all go out and hire one of these firms. It is an argument for discretion by us all. Even more, it is an argument that our society needs to hurry up and adapt to a world with more information available to all (good) but less privacy (bad). In some ways, this privacy issue frightens me more than identity theft. At least that is clearly illegal and if my personal information is misused I can seek some form of recompense. If I am not hired for a future job because I posted that I have a set of beliefs that some one doesn't agree with, tough. I won't even know it happened. And I'm sure glad there are no photos of me in the costume I wore to that risque party the University of Chicago used to throw.

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