Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No Place to Hide.

Nigerians are, I think, a secretive people. We have an entrenched paranoia over sharing and revealing personal information to anyone whether friend, family or stranger. This isn’t as a result of some highly developed sense of individualism or privacy as we see with the Americans. It is more of a superstitious dread of that personal information being used to harm us. So you do not leave bits of your hair where someone can get hold of them. When an unseen voice calls your name you do not answer until you have investigated the source and you do not share good news with certain people lest they find someway to turn it to bad news.

Some of that fear is justified – though the reasons are more concrete than the same traditions that resulted in twins being murdered and so-called outcasts being abandoned to die. My last blog about my near-miss from eBay fraudsters is a case in point. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Yet as we race to catch up and play in a globally connected world and try to enjoy all of its benefits, we have to surrender our secretiveness in order to be full citizens in today’s internet society. Actually whether you consciously choose to or not, just by being on the internet you are already providing a lot of information about yourself.

The backend systems that track your every search on Google or send information on every web page you visit to an advertising company or the other are out there, but I am not talking about those. The more interesting ones however are the systems that require you to be open in some way in order for you to participate. Facebook for instance requires you to participate with your real identity and you really cannot be a part of any sort of Facebook community without sharing some fragments of personal information. LinkedIn goes even further to being a site that is dependent on your providing verifiable professional and personal information. On LinkedIn, you are either flat-out lying or you are telling people about the schools you attended and when, the jobs you held and by implication your professional success thus far (or lack thereof).  These are just two examples of the information that can be easily used to identify you. We’ve all performed the narcissistic act of googling our names. For me that brings up this blog, my LinkedIn and Facebook profiles, my poems on Poetry.com, WhoIs information about the domains I own and so on. With this information, you have enough information about me to form a pretty good idea of my interests, capabilities and quirks without ever meeting me. You even have access to pictures to manipulate (I cannot believe I am saying all this).

The uses, both positive and negative, for this kind of information are pretty vast. Employees now go online to suss out current and prospective employees. Criminals can use the information to set up a scam. The past acts and utterances of political office seekers can be downloaded from YouTube. As computers become nothing other than wide spaces on the information superhighway everything that is typed on a keyboard or recorded with a camera phone becomes a permanent record that could exalt us or be our downfall.

This is the world we live in today. We Nigerians have to deal with it.

The awareness of this could drive many away from these tools and media. Many don’t use Facebook because they can’t stand the constant scrutiny. I honestly cannot blame them. I wouldn’t want to live in the Big Brother House either. And yet, as it is in London, the constant CCTV-like observations are just something you have to contend with because the use of the tools can result in tremendous personal and professional dividends. Now you either take the risk of participating – or stay offline and risk being left behind in everyone else’s exhaust fumes. Clearly you need to be circumspect as to what information you share and the contexts in which you share the information. However, like the mobile phones that we did not have 10 years ago, we simply cannot exist without those interactions and the exposure that accompanies them.

The London government would probably tell you that the constant monitoring is pretty easy to cope with – don’t break the law. Someone also once said “always tell the truth, that way you never need to remember what you said”. In the context of the internet, this means, do your best to live a life that will translate favourably online and you won’t have to worry about what end’s up on the world’s screens.


Photo courtesy of Soso at Flickr.com