The Illusion of Privacy

The Illusion of Privacy - First LetterIn addition to previous thoughts [see Child Abduction Statistics] on my decision to blog openly, I had a conversation with a friend regarding whether to use an online-only nickname when referring to my wife or daughter on a public blog. While our friend [who, ironically given the contents of this post, will remain nameless] brought up some thoughtful points, my wife and I are quite clear that blogging is fine as long as it doesn’t compromise our daughter’s safety or embarrass anyone other than me.

There are multiple people in the U.S. who share my first and last name (and at least one who shares the same middle initial) and who are also present in internet searches. There are thousands of people who share my wife’s first and last name. Our daughter is likely to be unique. The Census Bureau [.zip] estimates there were 375 people in the country with my surname as of the year 2000. The odds of one of them having a daughter with the same first name is quite low.

Therefore it would be theoretically possible to write about our daughter without necessarily providing any identifying information for her. However that would simply create the illusion of privacy.

Volumes of information about both my wife and me are available through any public search. Savvy users will quickly be able to discern us from the other people who share our names. The scope of public data is also disconcerting. Some enterprising folks somehow captured our birth registry on an aggregation website which subsequently got indexed by every major search engine.

Our daughter is already mentioned in a monthly newsletter produced by a civic organization in our hometown. Most concerning with regard to our daughter’s privacy is that many of our social network contacts have unrestricted privacy settings. Their posts — and to a lesser extent their comments and pictures — are publicly-accessible. My daughter’s privacy on the internet will only be as strong as the weakest point of contact. Given the ages and technical skills of many of our friends and family members, it would be silly to believe that basic information about our child would remain hidden from any competent searcher.

Towards that end, I’ve decided that it would be foolish, if not dangerous, to establish the illusion of privacy for our family. It is far too late for my wife or myself to believe that we will ever have . Exerting effort to anonymize all references to our daughter would likely require completely cutting off all internet interactions and may already be too late even though she is yet to turn one month old.

I don’t want my daughter growing up falsely believing that she is secure in a private, anonymous bubble. I don’t want my daughter thinking that only trustworthy people know her name and the names of her parents. I want her to be cautious of strangers and (sadly) even of acquaintances and distant relatives. [.pdf] Data on child abduction indicates even close relatives pose a risk.

Our daughter will gain benefits by giving up the illusion of privacy. My blog allows friends and family members to easily follow her life from around the world. Public sharing also allows all of her loved ones to see pictures and watch videos without cumbersome internal privacy settings or custom URLs. My grandmother (my daughter’s great-grandmother) has already benefited by being able to see newborn pictures taken at the hospital.

As she gets older my daughter will be able to choose her ideal balance between privacy and publicity. Until then I get to be a proud daddy who posts her cute pictures and brags about every ounce she gains.