Privacy in the Cloud, or Why Won’t Social Media Let Me Be Anonymous?!

I maintain several personalities on social media. I am a different person on Facebook than I am on Twitter than I am on Google+ than I am on LinkedIn, and I like to keep it that way. And even within particular media, I maintain multiple personas with different names and different passwords. I do this to keep my work life separate from my personal life, to be more efficient, to freely explore new technologies, and to reflect different interests. I also do this to explore the potential freedom to be anonymous on the Internet – to not be confined by gender, race, political belief, geographical area. Not to be profiled, categorized, boxed.

Imagine my surprise and concern when Google decided to combine my Gmail, Blogger, Google+, Google Talk, and other accounts as if they were all one undifferentiated account. And as if different names and passwords didn’t matter. And I discovered that Google had been archiving all my searches. And I found that Facebook had all along been keeping all my status updates. And I still cringe each time I log in and see a prompt asking me to complete my profile. Did you go to X high school? Since I don’t recall ever including that information anywhere on Facebook, How does it know?

And I am fed up with Facebook ads. Despite my best efforts at anonymity – I have no sex, geographic location, workplace, or other specific info in my profile, Facebook ads reveal that Facebook made a profile of me that does not match the profile I created for Facebook. Facebook apparently targeted me based on who I Friended, who Friended me, who tagged me in photos, the photos I posted, and what I’ve Liked. Facebook sends me political ads, when the persona I created is decidedly apolitical. And Facebook is convinced I’m in a particular city because it keeps sending me targeted ads for it. Never mind that I’ve resolutely not filled in the city where I live. Why won’t Facebook let me be a citizen of the Internet?!

Twitter also profiles me, but in different ways. I have one account where I maintain the same unexpressed geo-location. However, Twitter is targeting suggestions for who I should follow based on location. And people are following me based on that location. Twitter, like Google, is not keeping information from my different accounts separate. With Google, I’m concerned also whether, in some iteration, search results may be limited to where I am located with resources within my geographic area appearing on the first screen of results. This would be problematic especially as my work as a foreign and international law librarian involves locating resources beyond my local physical boundaries.

The result is that, on the Internet, I am who the social media I’m on say I am. Despite my efforts to maintain my privacy by creating a separate persona for each account, these social networks have created a package of information about me to sell to advertisers, and they gathered that information from all of the activity on all of my accounts. And I see ads only for what Facebook and Twitter think I am. I’m concerned that this social media profiling is keeping me from accessing information, keeping information from me, and limiting the potential I have to see and explore the world.

Developing laws and policies on privacy rights in the cloud could help strengthen my control over how my personal data/information is used by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media and enable me to anonymously search the Internet. Below are selected U.S., foreign, and international resources on the topic.

Journals, Newsletters, Blogs



  1. David Collier-Brown

    A colleague used to have a good example of the danger of merging data from multiple sources.

    In the days when birth control pills were very new, a programmer at a database company found he had partial access to a drugstore’s records. He selected the names of everyone who had such a prescription but found he didn’t have permission to see their addresses. He then joined his database with one from the local library, who also used the same company, and thereby created a list of women by name and address … to stalk.

  2. As far as I can tell, the recommendations from LinkedIn for possible connections is pulled–at least partially– from my email. I thought for a while they were just friends of friends (or in this case, contacts of contacts, but there are definitely people not connected through others who *are* contacts in email. My guess is I typically have both open via browser at the same time and so it pulls that data in. I have no proof of this of course, but it is the only way I figure it could know.