Leave no trace? What a farce

Leave no trace? What a farce

November 14th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Outabout

Just shy of 11 p.m. on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong went for a stroll on the moon, and in utter defiance of his Boy Scout training -- he was an Eagle Scout -- he left something behind: a boot print. (Also, several tons of other equipment.)

Because of the moon's almost complete lack of atmosphere, Armstrong's treaded tracks through the lunar dust could last forever. Here on Earth, of course, footprints have a much shorter life expectancy since wind and rain eventually will smooth away any sign of your passing. As we invest more and more time and energy online, however, the traces we leave behind are becoming a lot harder to erase.

For example, I received an email last week from a man in Ireland named James Hayes. I had absolutely no idea who he was, but he asked for information about a song I posted to my YouTube account in 2007.

He sent the message to my work address and used my first name, both of which I have been careful not to share on that service. I asked him how he dug up that information, and as soon as he responded, I slapped my forehead.

"I am not an Internet stalker, but I do work in network security," he wrote. "One of the YouTube commenters referred to you by your first name. A Google search for your YouTube and your name brought up a link to your Hype Machine account, which gives your full name. A subsequent search again on Google for your name shows timesfreepress[.com]."

Even for the tech savvy, it's all too easy to forget that we share more information about ourselves online than we care to contemplate.

A survey released in July by MyLife.com found that 42 percent of social-media users maintain multiple accounts. I'm one of them. Every day, I'm constantly updating my Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter. That's not even counting my multiple email addresses and subscriptions to media streaming services.

With our fingers in so many digital pies, our online activity is less a smattering of bread crumbs than piles of baguettes. As a result, Internet sleuthing today is no longer the sophisticated stuff of Tom Clancy novels; it requires about the same mental dexterity as opening the phone book. If you think there's such a thing as remaining digitally anonymous, think again.

Don't get me wrong. The Internet is a marvelous thing, but there's part of me that wishes using it was more like strolling on the beach than going for a moon walk. Then again, maybe that's the Cub Scout in me talking.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.