Authenticity, accountability and data privacy

Anonymous, authentic, private?

Charlotte Webb, from the university’s Centre for Learning and Teaching in Arts and Design (CLTAD) reflects upon notions of digital identities, in particular online authenticity and anonymity.

The question of ‘who we are’ online is a complex one, and managing our online identities can be a perplexing task given the wide range of platforms that require us to maintain and adapt our profiles (Facebook = personal, LinkedIn = professional, Twitter = a combination etc). Developing an effective online identity is an important part of creative practitioners’ professional development; enhancing their ability to network, promote and advertise their work, gain recognition and generate feedback and potentially income.  As well as equipping students with the technical ability to tailor content and create an effective brand for themselves, however, a thorough engagement with online identity means thinking about wider techno-social issues such as data privacy, authenticity, and intellectual property.

Following an interesting discussion at the recent DIAL event, Improving your prospects through online profiles, I have been reflecting on issues of authenticity and anonymity, and the need to engage with them critically when making choices about how we construct and play out our online identities. Authenticity is often associated with accountability, and proposed as a mechanism for preventing identity theft or bad online behaviour. Anonymity, on the other hand, is often associated with subversive activities (think of activist group Anonymous, or the supposedly rogue activities of 4Chan users).

However, authenticity on the web serves another function as well as supposedly protecting users from being duped or defrauded by imposters; it allows platforms like Google and Facebook to gather increasing amounts of data about us, which can then be monetised. In a recent article for the Guardian, technology journalist Aleks Krotoski gives a useful overview of how it is increasingly difficult to separate our online and offline identities as platforms like Google and Facebook demand that accounts are tied to people’s real names and connections. In this non-anonymous web, both of these web giants consider the use of pseudonyms as a breach of their terms of service. Facebook do allow celebrities who have a significant number of followers to use a pseudonym, but this is only permitted following the submission of a government issued ID to verify their real identity.

Using your real name and account information, Google and Facebook construct massive databases containing information about everyone you interact with online, your browsing history, what websites you have accessed, where & when, every event you have been invited to, its time, location and whether you attended, and your images. Some of this data can be extracted through the platforms themselves if you request it, but not all of it, and although it is well known that the data is used to target advertising as users, it is not clear exactly what else it is being used for. One slightly sinister use of images that Krotoski points to is the use of images by immigration officials who use photo albums to verify genuine relationships. For an interesting artistic intervention, check out  a project that intends to ‘to correct an imbalance of power in the use of personal data by enabling users to enter a market for their data’

Rather than just thinking of anonymity as a dangerous mechanism that encourages bad online behaviour, we might want to think of it as a form of resistance. At least we should consider how the tethering of our real identities and connections to our online profiles might compromise our data privacy. It is not just a question of what content you want to display to which of your followers – your invisible audiences are the platforms themselves.


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