Internet & Society: How Privacy with Identity Affects Us

The following was an essay for the course ICS 3 at the University of California, Irvine. I thought it would be a waste to let it sit on my hard drive, so here it is.

With the advent of the information age, rapid ways of sending, receiving, and storing data are easily accessible by most of, or even all of, society. This transference of zeros and ones, commonly called the internet, changes society in ways never seen before by humankind. Ultimately, when these internet technologies affect privacy, they affect identity as well; what a victim once thought was private information becomes part of a public, or online, persona. This online identity is very different from real life identities. This effect is induced from differences in privacy found at various points on the global network that is the Internet. Internet technologies affect society as a whole by changing identity through variances of privacy, creating online identities that are different from one’s physical identity.

Less privacy due to the internet can change a person’s identity. Internet privacy has been a rising issue in recent years simply because a single person with the right set of skills can instantly release information to the entire world. In the case of WikiLeaks, founder Julian Assange and a group of followers leaked confidential government events to the public. This brought light to how public access to sensitive information can be as destructive as it can be constructive. As Yochai Benkler quoted Tom Friedman ,  “[...] I also don’t want to live in a country where any individual feels entitled to just dump out all the internal communications of a government or a bank in a way that undermines the ability to have private, confidential communications that are vital to the functioning functioning of any society. That’s anarchy” (Benkler 60). The advent of WikiLeaks proves that after private information is released on the internet, identity changes. After all of the leaks had been released, people viewed the United States in a fundamentally new way. The loss of privacy and release of information due to the internet changes one’s identity. As discussed, the Internet can affect users by fundamentally lessening their privacy, however, the gain of privacy can have the same effect of changing a personal identity. Adversely, nothing on the internet forces one to appear as themselves online. In many cases, this is a chosen identity; for example, one would choose to appear as themselves on a social network like Facebook, a popular website in which users can connect with friends, in order to find and be found by friends also on the social network. On the contrary, the internet provides a way to be anonymous or at least strengthen one’s privacy. In alternative incidents, the zeros and ones that are being transferred over a network can be masked. While these pieces of data are typically protected by some sort of security, the other, less technical form of masking is the social and societal form. In this particular situation, which new networking technologies have created, one would use anonymity or a wealth of privacy in order to create a new entity; an online identity. Due to the idea of masking, this online identity exists only online, and not offline, in the physical world or otherwise. One may conform to societal norms or be socially inept without their identities shielded by a computer screen; however, when that same person logs onto the an area where anonymity or a great amount of privacy is expected, their physical identity, seen by society in public, is not the identity that is assumed. Instead, it is their constructed online identity that anonymity allows them to “log on” to. The double-sided blade that is internet privacy exposes not only individuals to the revealing effects of privacy, but also the cushioning effects that privacy has on one’s identity. Nicholas Palomares and Eun-Ju Lee’s study of virtual gender identity and language comes to mind. Although it was not specifically referenced in the article, their study had an aspect of anonymity of the participants. When their physical identities were hidden, many tried to convey language they thought would match the gender of their virtual avatar. Simply, when internet users are given more privacy, they are free to change their identity to whatever, or whomever they decide. Not only does identity change from the loss of privacy online, but also the gaining of privacy. The advent of internet technologies changes identity based upon the gain or loss of privacy, which means that different online entities see your identity in different ways. These different views are fostered by various online access points a single internet user accesses, such as services, websites, and networks. A simple run through of the account creation process shows how that website sees the identity of a user. The amount of private information one has given up determines how the site, along with the people running it, interprets your identity. The major three observers of one’s identities could therefore be classified into three groups: social, business, and governmental. For each of these internet groups, a whole new identity is seen, as each of these three categories collects separate data, and therefore views an individual differently. The social observers would be friends and family who most likely see the user’s online identity to be close to their real life identity. One’s identity to a business would be data that relates to one’s interest, purchasing habits, and as much info about that person as a consumer. This effect the internet has on business, privacy and identity can be seen rather clearly based on website ads which are targeted to your interests based on your business identity. Government observers monitor and collect data from the user to ensure there’s no illegal activity occurring. In a sense, business and government observers have a panopticon-like effect on users, which Foucault states is “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault). In other words, businesses and the government have a facade of constantly monitoring user activity so that people actually end up monitoring their online identity’s activity in fear of suffering negative consequences or to gain some level control. Variances of privacy on the internet, and the amount of data an entity has access to about an individual dictate how they see that person, and because of this, many identities, all of which are different, are formed for each internet user. From the 1960s to now, the Internet has come a long way with many fundamentally new effects on society. Many new Internet technologies have been developed to better our lives and have helped progress society exponentially. However, with all these new developments, the Internet has also become a potentially dangerous place. More and more users are trusting that their private information is safe online that assumption is never guaranteed; after all, it is known as the “World Wide Web” for a reason. With privacy leaks comes repercussions, mainly those regarding identity; the information that was previously hidden from the public essentially becomes a part of the individual’s identity, which is now visible to all. The internet has created fundamentally new effects on society in which identity is based on the loss or gain of privacy and is no longer purely physical, but online as well.

An essay by Alec Kriebel and Richmond Liu

  References: Benkler, Yochai.  A Free and Irresponsible Press: Wikileaks and the Battle for the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate. Web. Foucault, Michel. "Discipline and Punish, Panopticism." In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, edited by Alan Sheridan, 195-228. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Web. Nicholas A. Palomares and Eun-Ju Leen. Virtual Gender Identity: The Linguistic Assimilation to Gendered Avatars in Computer-Mediated Communication, Journal of Language and Social Psychology, March 2010 vol. 29 no. 1 5-23. Web.