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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid - There is No Such Thing as Anonymity

When I started publishing my writing, I took a step away from my personal information to make it more difficult for anyone to physically find me. I've been stalked before, and I knew the dangers. To this day, however, it scares me when I see how frighteningly easy it is to find people who are online - and even those that aren't. In fact, that's part of my job as a producer for The Kovacs Perspective. Sometimes there is a particular guest we want to have on the show, or even just an expert on a particular topic, that doesn't come through our usual route for guests. Then I have to go online and find their contact information. It usually takes me less than five minutes, even if I don't know their name when I start out.

That should scare you. Yes, you. Every one of my readers needs to understand how easy it is to find someone online. I can track down almost anyone, and I do not have access to police searches. Nor do I subscribe to any credit reporting service. I Google it. If a person is online in any fashion, their contact information is usually there for the taking. If someone even mentions their name online, I can find them. It happened today, in fact, when I was looking for a guest for the show.

Admittedly I have very good research skills, but you don't even have to know how to use any of Google's advanced search options. I used them years ago, but now I don't even bother. I don't have to. I don't think there is anyone that I have looked for that I haven't been able to find. Even people who do not have Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Some people just shrug their shoulders at this - either because they don't understand the danger, or because they're already cynical about it. I can only be grateful that my stalker did not have access to the tools back then, that I have access to now. It was more than twenty years ago, and the internet wasn't in everyone's home yet. My parents had it, but I didn't know anyone else that did. I didn't even know how to use it, because I didn't live with them anyone. It certainly wasn't the indispensable tool then that it is now.

Imagine, though, that you've got a neighbour who doesn't like you. Maybe they don't even know your name, because you've never introduced yourself. A quick look online to match your address to a name listed in the White Pages, and suddenly they're harassing you on social media because you waited an hour longer than usual to bring your garbage can inside. Yes, I've had neighbours that were like that. Not that incident specifically, but similar in magnitude. They didn't like how fast I drove up to my house in my own driveway. Confused? Yeah, so was I. They almost killed a couple of friends of mine by messing with the tires on my car, which later caused it to flip over multiple times. It was a very good thing they were wearing their seat belts. They also thought it was a lark to siphon gas from my car, leaving me stranded many miles from a gas station.

Those kinds of people are everywhere in the world. They think you looked at them funny one day, and suddenly they're justified in taking a crazy revenge on you, when what you were really thinking about at the time was that you forgot to buy sugar and you were really ticked at yourself. Now you have a mortal enemy you were completely unaware of making.

The fact that I'm very opinionated about certain things and express those views online, makes me a target as well, but at least I went into that knowingly. Every once in a while I have to take a break from it, because I don't enjoy being called names. However, my beliefs don't just disappear because someone calls me a political psycho or an idiot. It's kind of like what Jon Stewart said about values.

I do not consider my values to be hobbies, and though I might not like how people speak to me, and the disrespect I'm occasionally subjected to, I don't generally take it lying down. When I do take a break it's always with the intent of coming back full-strength again.

I recently did that with Facebook. I was getting some strange characters commenting on some of my threads - people who were not friends of mine, but rather friends of friends. It was getting to me to the point where I stopped being polite and was on the verge of spewing my own vitriol. That's not acceptable behaviour to me, so I walked away, figuratively speaking. This illustrates the complete lack of anonymity perfectly, though. People who don't even know you will spew hatred toward you because they disagree with your views. You can't stop them. You can only resist engaging with them.

There is a lot of hatred in the world, and a lot of anger. When I say I'm a feminist it raises a lot of hackles. All I mean is that I believe men and women are of equal value and deserve equal treatment. It does not mean I think women are superior, or that men are jerks. It does not mean I'm a lesbian, or that I refuse to shave, though I stand up for the rights of those who are gay or don't want to shave. My ball-busting is limited to those who treat me as less worthy than a male, and I don't care whether it's a male or female engaging in that behaviour. Of course, it helps that I've broken a vast majority of the stereotypes myself, and that provides credibility when I speak.

I still keep in mind, however, that I should never assume a determined person won't find me. They will. If they really hate me enough, I can be found and my safety can be threatened. I haven't been threatened thus far, and I intend to keep it that way if possible. That means I try to see more than one side of an issue, and acknowledge that others may have good reason for disagreeing with me. I'm not always successful, certainly, but making an effort helps. I've written articles for feminist publications and actually had people thank me for acknowledging the abuse and rape that occurs against men. I've had friends subjected to both that were were male so I'm well aware it happens, and it's no laughing matter when anyone is hurt that way.

On the flip-side of anonymity, there are also those who perform criminal actions online, and those people can almost always be found as well. Very few people even bother with a proxy server when they commit certain criminal acts. There have been a number of 12-year-old-boy types who have been found that were threatening to rape and kill women. That sort of thing is usually seen in gaming culture. For some reason they think it's okay to issue those threats, and think they're safe from anyone knowing who they are. It's one thing parents need to spend more time actively teaching their kids these days. It wasn't so much of a problem ten years ago when it might have applied to my daughter, because online gaming hadn't hit the levels it has now. I severely restricted her internet time back then, too, to make sure her homework was being done. If it wasn't, she was grounded from her computer for long stretches of time. 'Forever' to a teenager.

There's a good reason children under the age of thirteen aren't supposed to have a Facebook account. It's bloody dangerous. I honestly think it's a terrible idea for them to have an account before they're legal adults. Pedophiles search for victims online, and find them all too easily. Teenagers think they're invincible, which doesn't help, and they also have no knowledge usually about how to protect their personal information online. I'd be monitoring my daughter's account constantly, if she were still a teenager. She didn't have an account until she was an adult, though it had nothing to do with me. She just didn't want one. Even now she limits it to friends she actually knows, rather than just letting anyone friend her, and she's inherited some of my paranoia about personal information thankfully.

Even if it's not a stalker looking for you, there are always those that chase down credit card information, or want to steal identities. The latter is very very easy to do, by the way. I know exactly how to do it, though I have not. If you've ever misplaced your wallet, even if it was returned to you, you really need to monitor all activity under your own name, and you may have to do it for the rest of your life. Keep an eye on your credit, and make sure there are no alternative addresses associated with your name. Do yourself a favour and don't keep your birth certificate or SIN or SSN card in your wallet. Only have it with you when you're going to need it for something specific. If someone manages to make a copy of them, they can use that to get other ID, and the ID will be the real deal, unlike having forged documents. This is especially a problem when you can change your information online through official government websites. Their website security will mean little if someone else has all the right information to get past their security checks.

Here's the bottom line. I'm not some hot blonde that shows her cleavage in every ID photo. I don't do 'duck face'. Ever. I'm not young. I'm not a famous celebrity. I'm not rich. I still take precautions, and so should you. I've chosen to have an online presence in order for my voice to be heard every once in a while, but just because you haven't chosen that doesn't mean you're any less vulnerable than I am. A lot of information will already be available about you online, no matter what you do. Just don't add to it and make it even easier for someone to find you