Privacy, the Internet, and pictures of my kids

It feels like the idea of privacy is going to be even harder for my kids than it is for me–like they aren’t going to have a choice. Do I even have a choice?

When it comes to being more private on the Internet, I feel like I’m riding a sine wave. Some days I am outraged at the invasiveness of companies like Google, Twitter, or Facebook and want to stop using them forever. Other days, I think how much data I’ve already given them and other services, and if someone wants a giant folder on my habits, they probably already have it.

I was fascinated by the story earlier this year of Janet Vertesi, assistant professor of sociology at Princeton University. She decided to attempt to carry a fetus to term, and hide that fact from Big Data. Some of the actions she had to take to avoid companies knowing she was buying a stroller–like buying large denomination Amazon gift cards with cash–were not only inconvenient, but were also seen as suspicious. “It’s the kind of thing, taken in the aggregate, that flags you in law enforcement systems.” Dr. Vertesi said in an interview with Think Progress.

Last week, for fun, I read a book called How to Disappear. It basically tells you how to do just that but all within the bounds of the law. The lengths one has to go through to, say, be clear of a stalker or keep one’s kids safe from a domestic abuser are pretty extreme. Not only would you have to not have a house or a car in your name, you’d have to get several private mailboxes including decoys, pay for everything in prepaid credit cards, and only use disposable cell phones. You also have to choose between never telling anyone you love where you are, or tying them to a Fidelius Charm.

This is all to say that I think about this stuff, and I don’t know what to do for myself. I really don’t know what to do for my kids. Yes, I write this quite public column about being a parent, but I try very hard to focus on my experiences–not theirs. I don’t use their names here. Not because it wouldn’t be hard for a Private Investigator to find out, but because it’s not my information to share. Soon (very soon, probably sooner than I expect) my daughters will have ample opportunity to sell their private information on the Internet in exchange for virtual stickers.

Last week I also took down as many public facing pictures of my kids as I could find–largely because I felt like it. Some services–like Flickr or Tumblr–made it super easy to remove content in bulk. Other services–like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter–made it super hard. I’ve got no philosophical problem with anyone sharing pictures of their kids on those services; I just wish they were more ephemeral. I really wouldn’t mind if any person following my Twitter stream saw that my kid has ice cream all over her face. They might smile, they might fave it, they might grumble “stupid pictures of stupid kids on the stupid Internet,” but it would pass them by. But Twitter doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t just disappear. It’s there forever and is public.

Nothing is perfect security-wise, but my favorite method for sharing pictures of my kids has been iCloud Photo Sharing from Apple. We have a stream called “The Kids.” Friends and family1 who have opted into seeing pictures of the children get to see pictures of the children. They can “Like” the pictures or leave little comments. I can control who is on the list and who isn’t. And Apple seems to be doing OK at making money without mining my personal data for advertisers.

It feels like this is only going to get harder for my kids–that they aren’t going to have a choice. But do I even have a choice? Maybe I should welcome my advertiser overlords with open arms. Maybe if I told Facebook everything about me they could possibly want to know, they’d show me more ads for tacos.

Photo by: n.bhupinder

  1. Who have an iOS device or a Mac. 
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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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