Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Is it OK to lie about yourself online?

Courtesy Charis Tsevis/Flikr/Creative Commons 2.0
As part of our Digital Citizenship curriculum, students have written blog articles and posted them to the web. Part of the process in researching and writing our articles for posting includes repeated references to the ethics involved--- being courteous when commenting on others’ work, writing positive comments that further discussion, crediting sources, using media only with permission and so on. We also talk about the need to be personable and informal in blog writing, but to avoid revealing too much in the way of personal information. In a talk on the day we posted our articles, I mentioned that in terms of online security, all of us should consider using made-up answers to security questions (i.e., don’t give the real name of your first pet or elementary school) and to lie about your birthday on social networking sites, particularly if you don’t fully trust the site to protect your data. Is this wise advice? How can we instruct students to be ethical in their online behavior on one hand but encourage them to be dishonest on the other? How do we resolve the tension between honesty and security in our digital lives? Given the deliberate and widespread commercial and social practice of collecting personal data and the unintended but huge data breaches (think Target), I find myself agreeing with the words of a security researcher, “ To falsify a date of birth, for example (or adjust it to remove the day of birth, or to change the month) isn't fraudulent in my view, just prudent” (Emm).

It’s easy to say, if you don’t trust a site, don’t use it, but is this always realistic? We shop, bank, browse, do research, map trips, communicate with family and friends, play games and check the weather, all online. The author of A New York Times article on Google+ has pointed out that even though users might feel uncomfortable about Google’s data gathering, they have few options, given the company’s “sheer strength on the web.” Not only is our school committed to a variety of Google products, but search engines offering private searching are not yet serious competitors. Even with the Snowden PRISM revelations encouraging a shift to such products, DuckDuckGo’s worldwide searches totaled only 90 million a month compared to Google’s 30 billion in just the United States (Search Engine Land).  Many consider Facebook to be indispensable.  A Consumer Reports survey reports " . . . that people are treating Facebook more warily; 25 percent said they falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity, up from 10 percent two years ago."  Yet they still participate, to the tune of 180 million users in the U.S.

Even if you limit yourself to sites that are trustworthy, the potential for a third party to form a fairly accurate picture of you using statistical analysis from a sampling of your information has been well-documented, including the Netflix contest exposé by the University of Texas several years ago. Government and industry are both constantly increasing their capacity to store huge amounts of data and technology. Experts are able to use this data to pinpoint (or de-anonymize) individuals through examination of their online activity and bits of revealing information (Sledge). I don’t know about you, but I am disturbed by the remarks of the Chief Technology Officer of the CIA, who says, "Since you can't connect dots you don't have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever." How can we not work to protect what privacy we have left?

Of course, there are other, more forthright strategies people use to help protect their privacy. Ghostery or other ad blockers interfere with tracking from websites, beacons, widgets, and cookies that are collecting user data. There are also “do not track” or private browsing options on the major browsers. However, a security technologist writing in CNN reports that private browsing or “do not track” may mean no more than that the user does not see browsing history or receive targeted advertising; collecting and saving data may continue. Ad blockers are limited by the data collectors that they have identified. In addiiton, Google and Microsoft are currently working on technologies that will replace the cookie and, presumably, other easily identifiable trackers (Scheier).

Finally, should we be trying to block the ads and ad tracking when this is how we are able to access sites “for free?” A HuffPost article I used in researching privacy contains the warning that when accessing the site, one agrees to the collection of cookies. Is giving up information to data brokers a reasonably fair trade? Or does the lack of transparency in tracking makes this an unequal relationship, with users always at a disadvantage (Singer)? Technology expert Bruce Scheier says, "Surveillance is the business model of the Internet." We users are routinely blocked from having effective control over our data.

As important as it is to be ethical online users, it is equally important to be secure. When using social networking or commercial sites, we should all think twice about sharing our gender, phone number, zip code, race/ethnicity, and birth date information.   Pay attention when asked for information on forms and consider whether it is necessary to be accurate. Having complete privacy and security on the web may no longer be realistic goals, but we should do what we can to protect our information. No less a figure than the head of security for the British Cabinet advises citizens to be accurate only when using official or well-documented, safe sites (Wheeler).

Cited Sources


  1. I think in some cases it is ok to lie about yourself online. Such as: someone asking you age, birthday, and name......things like that.

  2. i believe that you are able to lies, it is a right as american citizen

  3. This article kind of opened my eyes about letting out my information online. I now know that I should always double check to make sure that I'm not giving away something important!(: Awesome article!

  4. This is such a great article!! :) it made me think about what could happen if you did post personal things on there. You always need to make sure that whatever you are posting isn't personal.

  5. There is a fascinating podcast on NPR's Fresh Air--If You Think You are Anonymous Online Think Again. This is an interview with Julia Angwin, a reporter who did a series on privacy with the Wall Street Journal several years ago. Angwin talks about the vast troves of data collected by data brokers, Google searches, and "free" apps. To avoid being identified costs money and all sorts of online gyrations and strategies and even then may well be unsuccessful. Her biggest worry wasn't necessarily the detailed profiles of her being sold to marketers but the totally inaccurate ones! (So does it help to intentionally mislead?) This to me is truly a matter of deep concern for many reasons.


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