Go Google yourself.
No, that's not meant to be a disparagement. It's a wakeup call to be more aware of the lack of control you have over what's put online about you. Organizations have a lot of information about you and at least some of it is online, invading your privacy and shaping your reputation.
Two recent examples:
A few months ago Facebook began using facial-recognition technology to automatically suggest “tags” for people it identified in photos. When a user uploads a batch of photos, the website's servers attach friends' names to faces they can identify. The user then approves or disapproves each tag, or corrects them. When users are tagged, that information shows up in their friends' newsfeed, or “wall.”
This means that if one of your acquaintances posts photos of you from three years ago at an embarrassing drinkfest, odds are good you will be tagged in them. Facebook's default privacy setting is to share that information with all your friends, so it is then posted on all your friends' walls that “Joe Smith was tagged in three photos,” along with thumbnail images and links to them.
You didn't post the photos. It was a long time ago. But because your friend posted them, they're now available for all your Facebook friends to see, including possibly your mother and your boss.
A Facebook acquaintance, an older gay man who is somewhat prominent in San Diego media, recently surfaced as tagged in my newsfeed. I clicked through to the photos and the tagged person was a woman, similar in appearance and possibly related, but also not my Facebook acquaintance. Still, it had me wondering for a few minutes if he was going through a gender change.
The other example, , is a new “mashup” provided on WhitePages.com that maps what is known as reverse lookup information. All you have to do is map a neighborhood and mouseover a house and it will tell you who lives there, along with phone numbers.
Reverse lookup information, in which you plug in a phone number or an address and get back the rest of the information associated with it, has been available on the Web for perhaps a decade. But seeing your house on a satellite map with your name, address and phone number on it seems a little creepy, particularly without your knowledge. The sources for this type of information go beyond the phone directory, and for one of my neighbors, their 8-year-old girl is listed as one of the home's occupants.
There are a lot of great aspects to “Web 2.0” and the rise of social media. But be aware that much of the online world is based on a business model of exploiting data about you without your knowledge or participation.
There are things you can do to take control, but it takes vigilance.
You can keep an eye on your Facebook privacy settings, for example. In those settings you can change who can view photos and videos that have you tagged, and in your photos of friends, control whether their friends can see those photos if the friends are tagged.
On WhitePages.com you can create an account to claim your listing and restrict or correct it (although the website requires you to add an email address to their database to do it).
You can monitor for appearances of your personal data on the Web using a new tool that Google has introduced. “Me on the Web” appears on your Google Dashboard (assuming you have a free Google account) and can send you email alerts when the data show up.
If you have serious concerns about your reputation on the Web, Reputation.com offers a unique set of paid services to help alleviate negative information or, conversely, to promote a positive personal brand. The website also offers a free set of suggestions to take an active role in controlling your reputation.
And finally, a Web startup expected to go live later this summer seeks to turn the control of personal data on its head.
Rather than let marketers use possibly inaccurate information about you to shape your Web experience, Personal.com seeks to create a business model in which you take ownership of your data, organized into “gems,” and grant those gems to websites based on what you want them to know about you. Jon Dudas, who is on Personal.com's board of advisors and is a former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, says he likens it to taking a patent on your personal information.
Editor's Note: This story has been revised. An earlier version incorrectly identified Jon Dudas as founder of Personal.com. It also incorrectly stated how Facebook's facial-recognition technology works to suggest tags for photos.