How to Think About Privacy and Managing Your Online Identity

Use Your Head and Use Your Manners

June 21, 2012

How should you manage your online identity in an era in which all your communications and activities are being tracked both online and offline? First, realize that you don’t control your online identities. An identity is bestowed on you as part of a process that is controlled by an entity with whom you have a relationship, e.g., a bank, government, or social network. Second, be mindful of what you say and do online. It’s all discoverable.

We do not control our online identities. Our online identities are simply numbers that identify our real-world identities inside processes that we do not control. We may have a right to privacy, but the process owner—the government, your bank, a business we transact with, or a social network we join—actually controls our identity. The companies we interact with online gather and use information about us across their ecosystems.

So, if we don’t control our identity inside their processes, how should we interact with online players, like Facebook and Google, who make money through selling our information for targeted advertising? And if this information—by legal but undesirable means, or simply by illegal means due to process breakdown or lack of effective security controls—is accessed by criminal cartels and/or government oversight agencies, how can we control what they see and do with that information?

The answer is that our choices are limited. But we do have choices. Choose carefully the processes you enter, how you enter them, and, once in there, don’t do or say anything online you would ever be ashamed of or wouldn’t want others to know!

Use your head and use your manners!

HOW MUCH CONTROL DO WE HAVE OVER OUR ONLINE IDENTITY(IES)?

What Is Identity?

The problem with identity is that it’s an emotional word.

When we use the word “identity,” we end up triggering thoughts, ideas, emotions, philosophies about self identity, how we relate to the world, self worth, value systems. The word is a minefield related to the concept of “self.”

But let’s think about the word “world.” There is the physical world—the one our bodies, brains, emotions, and our relationships live in. Then there is the online world—a world that actually does not exist. The online world is a construct, a construct literally and actually represented by 0100010011…… the numbers 1 and 0 inside blocks of silicon that perform processes one by one on the tick of a very fast clock. In the online world, a number represents everything, and a process manages every number.

So now we can go back to the concept of identity in the online world without any reference to “self.” Our online identities inside the online world are also numbers inside processes. Our identity in the online world is really a set of randomly assigned, stochastic strings of bits that evaporate into an ephemeral vapor when they are represented outside the computer. But, inside the computer, they are symbolic. Symbolic of what?

Each Online Identity Is Related to a Process

Our online identities are symbolic of our participation within the process that creates them. These are our online identities – bit strings representing us inside processes. So what is an identity worth? They are worth what the process says they are worth. The process bestows upon the identity the value of the identity.

Online Identity Is FIAT Identity. So our online identities are actually fiat identities. They, like fiat money, are only worth what some process bestows upon them. Fiat, in Latin, means “let it be so.”

  • Let it be so that my social security number is worth something, says the government.
  • Let it be so that my bank login ID is worth letting me see my banking details.
  • Let it be so that I have private bank number in Australia because I have existed in those processes for 30 years.
  • Let it be so that I cannot get credit in America because my SSN has not been seen in the FICO process before.
  • Let it be so that if a pernicious hacker gets my bits, they can participate in my processes.

Who Controls Your Identity?

Who lets it be so? The owners of the processes; we are participants, not owners. The bank lets it be so, the government lets it be so, global agreements between nation states let my passport be so.

We are inside processes that we do not control. So we may have the right to privacy, but we do not have the rights of control, as they are not our processes.

But we can control the processes we enter.

You can choose the processes you enter and the identity you create for your real online self.

You can let that be so.

Use Facebook and Google with your eyes open.


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1 comment


  • Ronni_author
    Ronni Marshak on September 12, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

    Very insightful, Peter. And good advice. I worry about the generation (generations?) of younger folk than I who put everything out there on Facebook, etc. When it comes back to bite them in the behind, it will be too late.

    Although sharing is good, I remember my mother telling me not to overshare. Some things should be kept private.

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