Dark shadows: reputation, privacy, and online baby pictures

In her article of 4 September “Why We Don’t Put Pictures of Our Daughter Online”, Amy Webb starts out with the understanding that parents who post information and pictures about their children are contributing to the eventual data shadow of that child.

She talks about the ever-increasing impact of the data shadow – the consequences of such information, from its availability to future friends and acquaintances all the way to potential employers and educational institutions having access to the data and the inferences they may draw.  

Alas, from this eminently sensible recognition, Webb’s approach quickly devolves into a couple of different (and contradictory) approaches.

Slate’s piece on why you shouldn’t post
photos of children includes a photo of a cute child you shouldn’t post. 


Slate’s piece on why you shouldn’t post photos of children includes a photo of a cute child you shouldn’t post.


First, she argues that “[t]he easiest way to opt-out is to not create that digital content in the first place.”  I would challenge the assumption that opting out is the best answer.  The existence of a data trail need not be an inherently or exclusively negative thing.  Think of the issues that women seeking to leave marriages encountered historically and may still encounter --  the lack of a credit history in the name of the individual woman.  Financial matters being left to the husband can result in these women becoming “invisible “and this invisibility in turn may mean that the women are left without financial resources to draw on.  Opting out (I originally wanted to dub this approach as a kind of digital asceticism or cyberAmish, but found that not only were both terms already in use, but both actively encouraged the use of technology, not the avoidance of it) doesn’t stop digital presence from being important -- having this kind of presence is increasingly an important (perhaps even necessary) precursor to participation in all sorts of arenas.  Instead, it becomes a misguided, even comical scenario reminiscent of  Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek raising Brendan Fraser in the claustrophobic  “safety” of a Cold War era bomb shelter (Blast from the Past, 1999).

Questions about how to authenticate identity are increasingly moving away from how an individual authenticates themselves and towards how other people’s relationships and perceptions of another act to authenticate that other.   Lack of digital shadow leaves an individual unable to authenticate herself, and thus denied access to useful resources, communities, relationships and information. 

Interestingly, despite her cry for opting out, it is clear that Webb believes deeply in the importance of a digital presence and does not see that changing.  She writes about the strategy of creating a “digital trust fund” for her daughter – how, after reviewing potential baby names to ensure no (current) negative associations or conflicts,

[w]ith her name decided, we spent several hours registering her URL and a vast array of social media sites. All of that tied back to a single email account, which would act as a primary access key. We listed my permanent email address as a secondary—just as you’d fill out financial paperwork for a minor at a bank. We built a password management system for her to store all of her login information…

The disconnects within her purported technical sophistication are many. 

It’s charmingly naïve to assume that Webb's "permanent" Verizon email address, the password management system or the logins set up now will still be operative by the time her daughter reaches an age where her parents deem it appropriate to allow her access to the digital identity they’ve set up.  (There is also a secondary question about the accountability of sites that are allowing her to set up accounts in another person’s name despite the controls they claim to have in place, but that’s another issue entirely.)

Even should those still be extant, what is the likelihood of the selected social media sites (or social media at all) remaining relevant?  Is this really a digital trust fund or the equivalent of the carefully hoarded newspapers and grocery store receipts that I had to wade through and then discard when we packed up my grandmother’s place?

Finally, her confidence that these steps will erase any baby digital footprints is misguided.  She writes that “[a]ll accounts are kept active but private. We also regularly scour the networks of our friends and family and remove any tags.” Nevertheless, it took less than 15 minutes for a moderately techie friend of mine (using nothing more than Google and opposable thumbs) to not only locate the name of Webb’s daughter, but the likely genesis of that name (the romantic overseas venue where Webb’s husband popped the question, and a family middle name.) 

Bizarrely, Webb’s well-intentioned effort to shield her daughter from potential future embarrassment of online baby pictures does not extend to self-reflection about the act of documenting, in detail, her meticulous gathering of data on her data including spreadsheets tracking her urination and poop. Webb wonders, “It’s hard enough to get through puberty. Why make hundreds of embarrassing, searchable photos freely available to her prospective homecoming dates? If Kate’s mother writes about a negative parenting experience, could that affect her ability to get into a good college?” completely without irony.

Am I saying that Webb has failed to sufficiently protect her daughter’s identity?  Not really.  I’m saying that in the modern world it is virtually impossible to keep information locked down.  It’s a waste and a distraction from the real issue.

So…let’s stop relying on opting out and/or protecting identity as a way to insure against the creation of data shadows and focus on guarding against negative repercussions from the content(s) of those shadows.  Instead of accepting that the use (and negative repercussions from that use) of online data are inevitable once the data exists, let us turn attention to establishing rights and protections for personal data. Why should information be considered presumptively public and broadly accessible?  What relevance does a blog post from a 14 year old have to a decision about whether that individual would be a good employee?  Should photographs of activities outside the sphere of school be considered as part of the “record” of a student applicant to academe? 

Webb says that "[k]nowing what we do about how digital content and data are being cataloged, my husband and I made an important choice before our daughter was born.”   Maybe the issue isn’t how the content and data are being catalogued – maybe it’s about how they’re being used.  Indeed, maybe if we stopped being distracted with futile efforts to “opt out” we might focus on forging effective and meaningful information controls.