We have nothing in particular to hide. But like most people, we don’t admit everyone into our confidence, our bank accounts, or our private mail.

However, maybe on the internet we can’t prevent that any more.

A story from 2010 demonstrated that problem:

Steve Boggan challenged web experts to see how much they could discover about his partner. The results were chilling…

As I sit writing this, I am feeling vaguely grubby — guilty even — in the way a neurotic husband might after hiring a gumshoe to go trawling through his wife’s secrets.

There is a 15-page report in front of me chronicling virtually every aspect of my girlfriend’s life: past and present. That includes her friends, education, embarrassing pictures, former boyfriends and long-forgotten relatives. More.

It is probably worse today. If 85% of consumers use the internet to find local service businesses, as claimed, those businesses may be affected by click farms and fake online reviews. So decision-making about everyday issues can be corrupted, never mind major ones.

And sometimes the problems are not so everyday. American search system Instant Checkmate offers all kinds of information, including very sensitive data, from masses of government databases for a fee. The service is marketed as a defense against criminals and sex offenders.

Just to test that, I searched an American friend who—I was morally certain—had a clean record. For US$3.00, the firm obliged me (they seem to claim the service is free, but practically, it is not).

The site is full of disclaimers that one cannot use their information for any purpose regarding employment, etc. But how any such proviso could be enforced today is unclear.

My search turned up nothing of interest, but that wasn’t a surprise. Here’s the surprise:

The potential problem of false information (believed to be automatically correct because it is “scientific”). That includes false information that can result in a criminal conviction, which could sometimes be due to tampering?:

Scores of pending criminal cases and past convictions could be in jeopardy in the wake of revelations that a former Houston Police crime lab technician resigned after an internal investigation found evidence of lying, improper procedure and tampering with an official record.

The internet can be a great help—or not—depending on the value of the information it provides.

One problem is that information can be stripped of critical context. If we learn that someone’s name appears in a database of persons convicted of a criminal offence, we might view the matter one way if we thought the local justice system was competent and not especially corrupt. Or another way if we think otherwise. But how will we know without local context?

My best guess is that reputation management services may be needed in the future, not to airbrush bad reputations but to rescue good ones.

Note: Children’s online privacy may be theoretically protected. But questionable outfits could be operating from zones from which it is unlikely that the accused can be extradited.

So be Steve Jobs. Be a low-tech parent.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...