The only way to protect our privacy online is to conceal our true selves

The only way to protect our privacy online is to conceal our true selves

Thursday 9 April 2009
Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

In a world of 6 billion people, fame means having only one name: Ronaldo, Madonna, Obama, Diana. Second names are used only to differentiate between identical forenames: Mel C and Mel B. I think technology will change all that. Here’s why. Everything we do is going up into the cloud, and once it’s there, it no longer belongs to us. People don’t care now, but they will in a few years’ time.

One of my favourite programs a few years ago was Evernote, which collected, organised and made searchable all sorts of information, from web clips to PDFs and quickly typed scribblings. Even handwritten notes could be scanned, and so could the text in mobile phone photographs. The only snag was that it was difficult to keep two copies of the program in sync between my laptop and my desktop. When version 3 came out, it promised to make it possible to sync all kinds of devices – not just PCs, but Macs, and soon iPhones as well. But you had to do it through the company’s servers, not through your own machines. I wouldn’t – and I won’t.

I don’t want to pass all my private thoughts through someone else’s computers. The fact that Evernote is such an excellent collector of all sorts of information only increases my reluctance to use it. The more that I put into a program like that, the less I want to share it with the world, anonymously or not.

Few people seem to share my sensitivity about this kind of privacy right now. But I think that almost everyone will in a few years’ time. I actually quit Facebook, or tried to, and I certainly stopped using it when I realised that the real value of the company was in the information it may sell to advertisers. That gesture doesn’t seem to have started a mass movement, or even any sort of movement. But eventually the business model of apparently free services in exchange for information that can be used to sell stuff will hit limits on the net, just as it has hit them in the world outside.

The model is normally understood as an exchange of privacy for money. But I don’t think that gets it quite right. The difference is quite simple. My private life can be defined as the things that I know about myself that I don’t want to share with the world. But the information that Facebook – or Google, or even Evernote – collect is different because it’s not made up of things that we already consciously know about ourselves. It is, in a sense, private even from me.

This is fairly obvious in the case of knowledge collection programs such as Evernote: by collecting and concentrating knowledge, they also create it, just as diaries and commonplace books once did. If I already knew and could remember everything that I was interested in, I wouldn’t need a program to help me organise and display it.

But Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and, most of all, Google, can know things about me (or, if I’m Jacqui Smith, my husband) that I don’t know are there to be known. And, unlike the explicit knowledge-collecting programs, they hold it in ways to which I don’t have access. The real information is not what I said or wrote, but who I said or wrote it to, and who they in turn were connected to; how my queries ran on one from another: how I thought. That is tightly locked up within the databases of the big social networking companies. That is what they are selling on.

So what can we practically do? A life without Google is hard to imagine. So I predict that, increasingly, people will turn to second identities – forenames, if you like – which are shared only in private among our real friends. We all do this with email already. It’s the only thing that makes it manageable. But soon it will be happening with all our online identities.

And the more we may be public figures, the more of these pseudo-names we will need. In 20 years’ time, the mark of a significant person will be to have nearly as many names at their disposal as Henry Charles Albert David Windsor (Prince Harry to you and me). And, as any journalist who has dealt – however fleetingly – with any celebrity will tell you, we know nearly nothing about their real private selves. Those are concealed in the names the public never knows.