The 411 On You

29 03 2011

Once upon a time, our lives were fairly private affairs. Unless you were willing to visit countless public offices, it was all but impossible to gather information about individuals (e.g., marriages, births, taxes, etc.). The grapevine was pretty much the only source of information, yet was fraught with error and exaggeration. Or you could risk arrest by opening your neighbor’p;s mail.

Not anymore. Today, the data mining industry is thriving, mostly in part to our own willingness to share facts we once deemed TMI for general consumption. Privacy is a lock to which we have freely shared the key.

Take a look at this video from the folks at



A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein demonstrates just how much information is easily and publicly available. Our lives are open books, and anyone is free to flip the pages.

It was bound to happen to some degree anyway, given online databases and shopping. But social networking has made it much easier still to harvest information. Remember that game or app you just added to your FB account? The Terms of Service Agreement probably stipulated that you agreed to share not only your information, but also that of your friends.

Yikes. Every one of my Farmville-playing friends has sold me out. While we can individually tighten down the screws on our FB security, each time any one of our friends adds a new feature to their FB experience, they drag us along with them.

It’s kind of like leaving the key under the mat, but putting a note on the door to let the burglars (UPS man, religious proselytizer, entire neighborhood) know.

Still, the amount (and types) of information we willingly share is quite revealing. The ages and genders of children and spouses. Phone numbers. Email addresses. Vacation plans. Dining preferences.

Toss in the enormous amount of data collected by our cellphone carrier and the apps we install, and it’s easy to see why data miners are salivating. Then consider mobile payment apps like the one Google is introducing. Now they’re foaming.

Which means that transparency is the new black, whether or not we want to wear it. There is no place to hide; the citizen has no clothes.

While’s video is certainly alarming, we must remember that they are marketers. They are trying to sell us something. Actually, they are trying to scare the daylights out of us. And, for a fee, they will try to help us.

Anyone with half an ounce of internet savvy can do this themselves. I need not pay $129/year for the basic service to find out what others can find out about me by doing simple searches. And I definitely don’t need to pay $699 for the special treatment, which really amounts to nothing more than them hosting a bunch of your personal bios. You know…kind of like gaming the search engine industry so that the stuff you post about yourself will float to the top.

Hmmm. I bet I could do that myself, and in about a couple of hours max.

The best bet for all of us is to be better managers of our public selves, and not be freaked out by scaremongering videos like this one. Yes, it is much easier these days for anyone to distill information about us, but that doesn’t mean it was never available in the first place. As Joel Stein found out, his story (give or take a few factual errors) is out there for everyone to find. So is mine. And yours. I just accept that fact, and do the best to release what I want others to know. OK, what I wouldn’t mind being plastered across the entire internet.

Because at the end of the day, we are still in control of who we are. We just have to be more careful. And I stake my reputation on that.

Dr “Search Me” Gerlich



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