Misinformation, Identity, and Power in the Internet Age
In a world of networked transparency, misinformation is increasingly more powerful than privacy.
During my presentation at the Metaverse Meetup last night (video available soon), I got into a discussion about what happens to control over one's own information in a world of information saturation. If privacy is effectively unattainable, or the institutions to protect privacy are too weak to withstand the relentless expansion of Internet observation, what recourse would those wishing to maintain some control over their external visibility have available?
One possible alternative: intentional misinformation about oneself, reducing the "signal to noise" ratio of networked transparency.
This misinformation would need to be widespread, and at least match in abundance the "real" information. The various automated tools for gathering personal data would be hampered by this approach, and if the false information became sufficiently abundant, it might render the real data effectively invisible. Such a technique probably wouldn't work well for those of us who have long-standing Internet histories (a quick check to the Internet Archive would confirm when new stories first appeared), but might work beautifully for people just starting to leave a footprint. That is, misinformation could be a very effective defense for everyday folks who would prefer not to have their life stories available to anyone with access to Google.
One can readily imagine small service providers appearing, offering to produce a wealth of garbage info to spoof one's online identity. Powerful digital engines like the "Storm Worm" network of zombie PCs might be pressed into service, spewing out misinformation by the gigabyte. If the false data made its way into trusted repositories, it might be nearly impossible to eliminate.
The flip side of this, however, is that misinformation appearing in trusted locations can be quite damaging to the people who have built careers online. I learned this for myself just today.
Someone, a few months ago, changed the Wikipedia entry for Worldchanging to completely eliminate references to my having co-founded the site. Gone. Down the memory hole. I have no idea who would do this, but (judging by the page history) it was clearly intentional, and was not an accidental over-zealous edit. In the intervening several months, numerous stories have been written in print and online media about Worldchanging; to the degree that journalists would check Wikipedia for "objective" info, my contributions to the site's development would have been invisible.
As annoying as this might be, it was easily corrected -- at least on Wikipedia. I have no way of knowing where this misinformation might have spread, or whether any of the places using it as a reference could in turn be used as a reference for others. I'm hopeful that it was an isolated event, and will have no lasting impact. But that's the thing -- as I said, I have no way of knowing.
Increasingly, the balance of power for information and identity is not the clash between transparency and privacy, but between transparency and misinformation. Some might find this a useful way to protect themselves; others might find it a real threat to their livelihoods. But as Internet information and identity become more important, the creation of misinformation about individuals is likely to become an intentional, strategic act, another way of asserting power in the Internet age.