Lauren O'Neil is a producer on the Community desk of CBC News, and is a self-professed 'internet addict.' Evan Mitsui/CBC
I was 12 years old when I published my first blog post.
It was 1996 and, at the time, my biggest concern was that one of my parents would pick up the phone and kill our 14K modem’s connection to the internet while I was uploading images.
The concept of digital privacy didn't even register in my mind – I was simply thrilled to put my thoughts and face on the web for the entire world to see.
A lot has changed since then, technologically speaking, but my desire to share my life online has never wavered. In fact, it's only grown stronger with the advent of social networks, micro-blogging and, most significantly, smartphones.
Today, I live out much of my personal life through my iPhone and laptop. I communicate with my friends through Facebook Messenger, post photos of my daily adventures on Instagram and even publish blog posts through Wordpress while I’m on the streetcar sometimes.
I tweet out jokes, musings, fun links and photos constantly – almost compulsively – and probably upload more selfies than is considered socially acceptable. I’ve also got a YouTube channel, a Tumblr blog, multiple Gmail addresses and accounts with Google+, Rdio, SoundCloud, Netflix, Pinterest and Foursquare.
As an associate producer on the Community desk for CBC News, I write multiple blog posts a day, host a weekly online chat show and sometimes appear on television to speak about internet-related things.
When my colleagues approached me to take part in a project tracking my daily surveillance habits, I was curious to see just how much information I’m giving away. Suffice it to say, I’m quite comfortable putting myself out there.
What I’m not comfortable with is the idea of anyone gaining access to information I haven’t explicitly made public – and as this project shows, I’m revealing quite a bit more than I’d expected.
The extent of online tracking
When I was first told about this project, I assumed that my online activity was being tracked at least a little bit.
I understood that leaving my iPhone’s GPS on would geolocate my Instagram photos, that checking into the gym on Foursquare could activate nearby marketing promotions and that third-party Twitter apps had access to my email address and other data I’d provided.
I was even aware that Facebook was selling my data to marketers – hey, that’s the price you pay for a free (and, to my mind, essential) service.
What shocked me was how much of my personal, private information could be accessed by the government and corporations through simple activities such as buying a coffee or checking my RSS feed over breakfast.
Every email and tweet I send contains metadata such as the date, time and subject of the message, as well as the IP address from which it was sent. With the amount of personal data I push through my iPhone every hour, it means I could be tracked down at almost any time of the day.
It’s scary to think about what could happen if that information came into the wrong hands.
Something else I’d never really considered was how vulnerable I was making myself by using public Wi-Fi networks, which can be insecure. Sure, I might save a few bucks on my wireless bill, but is it worth the risk of giving third-party corporations or even malicious hackers access to my data?
Participating in this project has opened my eyes to how much information I’m involuntarily sharing with marketers, the Canadian government and potentially even U.S. authorities.
But while privacy is important to me, so is communicating with my peers, having a creative outlet and contributing to the online culture I so deeply love and respect.
Without sharing so much of my life through the Internet, I wouldn’t be where I am professionally. I’d also have missed out on some of great social, creative and career opportunities.
The rewards outweigh the risks… for now. That said, I’ll definitely be turning off my iPhone’s GPS function. It’s a small but necessary step.
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