A Plausible Thought About the Future: Safeguarding Privacy With Deception


What if the key to anonymity is putting more information out there rather than less?

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Say you're a 26-year-old who just got hired as a middle school teacher. You love your new job. Your students are great. But what if they Google you and make it to the third page of results, where there's a link to a sexually explicit column you wrote years ago for a now defunct Web magazine? Awkward. Maybe even a threat to your career. Alas, the erstwhile editor of the site won't remove the piece. And even if he did it would live on -- it's hard to remove anything from the Internet.

In the future, I wonder if it'll be common for people in situations like that to stop trying to scrub information from the Web, preferring to strategically add more content to the cloud as an elaborate diversion. Our hypothetical teacher, Aundrea McFarnsworth, might figure her name is too uncommon for her secret to survive forever. So she creates an online presence for a couple other fake people with the exact same name; fabricates Facebook accounts for them; establishes a presence on Twitter; and launches a fake blog making clear that one of the other McFarnsworths is an aspiring sex columnist who once wrote for the defunct Web magazine. Were there ever an intensive investigation her ploy wouldn't hold up, but it would be enough for her purposes. 

Or maybe what vexes someone is photo-tagging. When John Doe attended that gay pride parade while visiting New York City, he never realized his image would be captured in a huge crowd, his Sacramento Kings cap atop his head, or that technology would make it possible to zoom in on his features, or that facial recognition software would tag the photo as him. Now he's back in Fresno freaking out. What if people at the plant where he works figure out that he's closeted? So he takes to the Web. Photoshops himself into all sorts of unlikely places. Tienanmen Square. The gold medal platform at the 1976 Summer Olympics. In the crowd for "The Shot Heard Round the World." All while wearing that same cap. Suddenly the gay pride parade shot is just one more iteration on the photo meme that he or some prankster buddy made.

Problem solved.

Already there are lots of firms that will help you improve your Google results or scrub your Web presence. I am sure I am not the first to think of this additive rather than subtractive strategy, but I bet it's going to be talked about more in the next few years, and become a common feature of Web life ten years out: folks will be very careful about aspects of their online identity that can't easily be explained away, like posts to their own Facebook account. But the reality of their presence on the wider Web will be obscured by the deception of adding false content, paying someone to do it for them, or even joining an activist movement that puts out false information about everyone so that anyone can plausibly claim, "Nope, it may seem like I wrote that, or was photographed there, but not really -- it was that pesky activist group, I'm sure you know how it is."

Image credit: Flickr user Informatique
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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