Esther Earl died at age 16 from cancer. Her parents have published a collection of her writings.
As people become more concerned about the information available about them on the Internet and how it is used, they turn to different approaches to protect their online presence.
“There has been somewhat of a shift in terms of this overall concern about the vast amount of information,” said Michael Zimmer, who studies and teaches about internet privacy at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, told Here & Now. “And I think for a lot of people, they’re getting this sudden realization that, ‘You know what, maybe I need to slow down a little bit, or even remove myself all together.’”
Trying to be ‘unGoogleable’
Most drastically, people attempt to be “unGoogleable” — meaning no information about them can be found in search results.
But that’s typically not possible.
“You can’t really just send an email to Google and say, ‘Please remove all these websites that have information about me,’” Zimmer said.
However, he says it is worth paying attention to what information about you can be found online.
Online reputation management
“It’s going to be hard to be unGoogleable, but at least you can try to monitor and manage a little bit what about what is discoverable about you,” Zimmer said.
One of the method — which has become a highly lucrative industry — is online reputation management (ORM).
Individuals and businesses use ORM services to stock their search results with positive articles and reviews. As a result, the more negative results are driven toward the bottom.
‘Black ops’ reputation management
In the ethical gray area of online reputation management is the creation of fake articles about people or companies whose reputations have been spoiled.
Graeme Wood reported in New York magazine about the world of “black ops” reputation management.
A college classmate of his, Phineas Upham, had been accused and acquitted of tax evasion charges, but Wood became interested in how quickly the negative press about Upham was trumped by positive press when he Googled Upham’s name.
“There was a whole universe of fake websites, fake magazines, fake entities, that seemed to exist and to have been built up just to make the Google profile of this person look good,” Wood told Here & Now.
$10,000 per month for ‘black ops’ ORM
However, it wasn’t apparent that the websites were fake. Wood had to do a great deal of digital investigative work to trace those websites to their source, a company called Metal Rabbit Media.
“The founder of that company told me that $10,000 a month was really the minimum amount that someone would be asked to spend to engage their services,” Wood said. “The industry of online reputation management — I was quoted a figure of $5 billion nationwide. So it’s quite a lot of money people are spending to make themselves look good online.”
Wood says that although black ops reputation management is a questionable practice, reputation management itself isn’t unethical.
“You can take the good things that you’ve done and accentuate them,” Wood said. “You can take the bad things that you’ve done and not mention them. The unethical ways, I think, consist mainly of taking things that you haven’t done and awarding yourself garlands for those, and that’s what I think happened in this case.”
However, not everyone is Phineas Upham.
“Luckily, most of us are just not interesting enough for the New York Times to write about us when we do stupid things,” Wood said. “But, if we happen to suffer the fate of being so interesting that the New York Times does write about our crimes and alleged crimes, then the best thing we can do is amazing things that are impressive and that are real.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It has been almost three months since NSA leaker Edward Snowden became an international celebrity and brought to light government surveillance programs that have many Americans concerned about whether the information they share electronically is really private. Perhaps some have even tried to delete some of their online history.
But what about going to the extreme and becoming totally unGoogleable? Well, that is happening, too, and joining us to talk about it is Michael Zimmer. He's a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies the Internet and digital privacy. Professor, welcome.
MICHAEL ZIMMER: Thank you, Jeremy, for having me on the show.
HOBSON: Well, why would somebody want to be unGoogleable? Because there are people who do want to not be found on the Internet.
ZIMMER: I think there's an increasing concern over the amount of information about us that's online. You know, a lot of us share information about ourselves, and we do it willingly and openly. I have a Facebook account, a Twitter account, a whole bunch of other social media accounts, but I think there's been, you know, somewhat of a shift in terms of this overall concern about the vast amount of information.
So many things that I'm sharing over time, all of a sudden they can see it all, even on Facebook where they set up this timeline, and I can see five, six, seven years' worth of information. And I think for a lot of people, they're getting this sudden realization that you know what? Maybe I need to slow down a little bit and even remove myself altogether. And that's what's becoming increasingly hard to do.
HOBSON: And if they want to do that, there are some tools available. Tell us about some of the options for people who want to take themselves off the map, if you will.
ZIMMER: Well, I mean, the simple ways are to delete your account, so you can go to Facebook and delete your account. And you can, you know, scrub your Twitter account and a few other types of accounts. But a challenge there is even though I delete my accounts, you know, I don't know who may have captured that information yesterday or last week or a month ago.
ZIMMER: And it could be, you know, sitting in some archive somewhere. It could have been reposted or repurposed somewhere else. So that's where this gets really hard. I know there's some users, you know, especially younger users, that are getting kind of creative in how they use Facebook. They deactivate their account every day so when they're not online they can't be found, and no one can go and see them or post on their wall without them knowing, and then the next morning when they go back on the computer, they reactivate their account.
So they're kind of like actually leveraging the fact that Facebook keeps your information for a little bit even if you close your account. So they're trying to find some ways to kind of hide themselves a little bit, at least when they're not sitting in front of the computer. But to completely remove yourself, it gets really hard. You can't really just, you know, send an email to Google and say please remove all these websites that have information about me. That's just not how the Internet's working.
HOBSON: You could say it's going to be more time-consuming to delete your presence on the Internet than it is just to have one, which is time-consuming enough.
ZIMMER: Absolutely, and that's where it gets - you know, with the amount of social media that we have, you know, the fact that we all have cameras, we all have mobile connections, you know, there's going to be pictures posted of me or tweets posted about me being on this radio show, and I'm not going to have any control over what people are saying that I'm doing, let alone be able to sort of track it all and manage all that.
HOBSON: Is it worth it, then? I mean, is it worth trying to get yourself unGoogleable?
ZIMMER: It is worth paying attention to what is searchable and what you can find out about you. I mean, I have a Google alert set up for me, and it's, you know, partial vanity but also partial just to see, you know, what is being posted about me. And all of a sudden if I appear in the article, or I see there's a picture that I'm tagged in, I can see what's out there.
So, I mean, it's going to be hard to be unGoogleable, but at least you can try to monitor and manage a little bit what about what is discoverable about you.
HOBSON: And it does seem like it's becoming trendy right now to be unGoogleable. There's a coolness associated with, for example, not being on Facebook.
ZIMMER: Right, you see these kinds of trends happening, especially with younger users or people that are newer to these platforms. I sometimes joke that there's just too many 40-year-olds like me on Facebook and that younger users just don't want to be there anymore. So it's about being on different kinds of platforms and finding different ways to sort of express yourselves online.
I think users are using more anonymity, and I think a platform like Tumblr or even Twitter allow users to be a little bit more expressive than Facebook, which requires you to use your real name and put all this personal information on there.
HOBSON: What are the downsides of being unGoogleable beyond the time consumption it takes to do so? I'm thinking about when you apply for a job, somebody might want to look you up and see if there's stuff online about you, and if they don't find anything, they might be concerned.
ZIMMER: Right, there almost could be sort of the unanticipated consequence of being completely invisible could throw up a red flag, like, well, why aren't you online, why haven't you been engaged. A lot of my students are going into jobs related to technology, and they need to have some kind of a Web presence just to show that they're savvy and that they're connected.
So there's plenty of reasons for us to have these profiles and all this information, but again it's sort of finding that right balance.
HOBSON: And for society as a whole, I've read that there are concerns if we're taking information away from the Internet, we lose the ability to see larger trends that are going on, to see what's really happening.
ZIMMER: Right. I mean, the fact that we're sharing so much about our everyday lives, and a lot of people think that it's all this pointless information, but it really does have a lot of value. It has social value for me just to be able to exchange and share with friends, but even for researchers, Google does some interesting tracking of health based on what people are searching on Google, in terms of flu symptoms.
ZIMMER: You can do some amazing research by capturing open and public streams of Twitter activity, to see what people are interested in today or this hour or this very moment. So there would be a lot lost if we all suddenly, you know, took all of our information, all of our interests and activities, you know, from the Internet.
But it's going to be always this worry about, well, who's getting access to it, what are they doing with it. I might be OK if Google has the information, but, you know, well what if the NSA asks for it.
HOBSON: Yeah, which is becoming more of a concern now than ever before.
HOBSON: Michael, this is such a new phenomenon, the idea of being unGoogleable. Have we ever faced anything like this before, before the Internet existed, where people would try to take themselves off the grid?
ZIMMER: Well, there's always examples of people that want to, you know, reduce the amount of, you know, technology in their lives or control, you know, their PR or their image. I mean, that's always existed. I think what's been unique about, you know, with the Internet is the reach that the information has and the speed at which it can spread.
HOBSON: Michael Zimmer is an assistant professor at the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Professor, thank you so much.
ZIMMER: Thank you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And perhaps being unGoogleable is too far a stretch for many people, but if you've just got some covering up to do online? Can you sanitize your Internet presence? The answer is yes, but it will cost you big-time. We'll find out the length some people will go for reputation management after the break.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Well, how far would you go? Would you try to erase parts of your digital parts of your digital footprint, and did it work? You can let us know at our website, hereandnow.org. You can use your real name if you dare...
CHAKRABARTI: Or maybe even an Internet handle. Stick with us, back in a minute, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and we've been talking about our online presence and the people who try to make themselves unGoogleable. But if you have to leave a trace of yourself online, can you manage what that trace is? Can you remove the bad and leave only the good?
Or, if there is no good, can you pay someone to make it look like there is? For answers, we're joined by Graeme Wood, who has done an extensive piece for New York magazine on what he calls black ops reputation management. He's with us now from Berkeley, California. Welcome.
GRAEME WOOD: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, this all started with a personal connection with you. Tell us about that.
WOOD: I had a classmate who had a very distinctive name, and so just reading the newspaper, I was able to find out that he had been indicted for allegedly bringing cash into the country illegally after having - had stashed it away in a Swiss bank account. This was a large amount of money, $300,000, and it's not every day you find out that someone you've known or someone you've met has carried eight pounds of $100 bills across the border.
HOBSON: Yeah. And we should say, you say he has an unusual name. It's Phineas Upham. So that is very unusual.
WOOD: It is. It is. And, you know, it's sometimes a good fate to have a distinctive name, and sometimes not. So when I started looking into how this case was going, just by Googling, you can find out a lot about a person, including a lot of things that turn out to be false. And so by looking, I found that there was a whole universe of fake websites, fake magazines, fake entities, that seemed to exist and to have been built up just to make the Google profile of this person look good.
HOBSON: And did you find any evidence of the money laundering?
WOOD: You could find it if you looked. And, you know, since the New York Times, Bloomberg Business Week, entities like these also carried it, and these have a lot of clout with Google, they could still be found if you Googled his name. But you'd also find a lot of fake stuff that had been built just for the purpose, I think, of concealing the real news.
HOBSON: What were you finding? What was the fake stuff?
WOOD: So, the first fake stuff that I found was a series of press releases about magazines that had appointed him to their editorial boards. And, you know, I'm someone who writes for a living, so I know how difficult it is to get published in magazines. And it's tough work. So I was briefly impressed by that.
But then, if you look just a little bit more carefully, you find that these magazines don't have much of a trail. And if you go to the offices that are listed for them, then you find that there's nothing there at all. In one case, it was just the alley behind an Indian restaurant.
So you start finding things like this, and you realize that the universe that's been built up is completely fake.
HOBSON: Now, you figured what Phin Upham did. How much money did he have to spend to change his online reputation in this way?
WOOD: I asked him if he used a service, and he wouldn't talk to me. So I never got anyone to confirm this. But, in this particular case, I had to look at digital footprints. I had to look at websites, metadata, and it took quite some time to build a very, very strong case that this had happened. The digital footprints are there.
And if you follow them, you find a company called Metal Rabbit Media. And the founder of that company told me that $10,000 a month is really the minimum amount that someone would be asked to spend to engage their services. And he seems to have been engaging their services for well over a year.
HOBSON: Ten thousand dollars a month. Why would somebody feel it necessary to spend that kind of money just to change what you're getting when you Google them?
WOOD: Well, if you have a very distinctive name, as he does, then by Googling, you really can't deny that it's you. You can't claim that you're not the one who's mentioned in these criminal indictments. So he was looking - he's still a young man. So he was looking at perhaps a lifetime of having people he meets, people he wants to impress Google him and find that he has a less-than-savory reputation.
So I guess if you have enough money lying around, and you think that you might be able to game the system, then you do it.
HOBSON: Well, so what is wrong with what he did to fix his online reputation? There's nothing illegal about that.
WOOD: No. There's nothing illegal about it. There's nothing illegal about lying. There's nothing illegal about saying you've done things that you haven't. And it appears that he has done things that most of us would consider immoral, definitely would consider misleading. Even if they're not illegal, there are things that usually cross our ethical boundaries.
HOBSON: Graham, how common is this kind of thing? How many people out there are themselves versions of Phineas Upham, if you will?
WOOD: I think his case is an extreme one. The industry of online reputation management was - I was quoted a figure of $5 billion nationwide. So it's quite a lot of money that people are spending to make themselves look good online. Now, not very many people have the resources to spend $10,000 a month or $300,000 total, perhaps, on reputation, but there's definitely lots of people who go through a kind of whitewash of their reputation when they try to put their public face forward.
HOBSON: And is it just so that they'll be able to get jobs in the future? Is it about their friends finding out about their past? Why do they do it?
WOOD: It's because we all know that it's a kind of malpractice, whether in business, if you're looking for a business partner, or in romance, if you're looking for a date, you know, you have to Google someone to find out who they are. And when you do, you trust Google more than you trust the person in real life, often. And sometimes, that leads you toward the truth, and sometimes it's misleading.
HOBSON: Now, towards the end of the article that you write in New York magazine, you end up feeling sort of sorry for people like Phineas. Why is that?
WOOD: Well, I have a name that is not easily Googleable. You can Google me and you'll find me, but you'll find another bunch of people with the same name. And so that makes it a little bit more difficult for the things that I have done to stick with me forever.
I think the things that he is alleged to have done might stick with him longer than he really deserves. And, you know, you don't get to choose these things, and it might be tough - it would be even tougher for someone who didn't have the money to try to clean them away.
HOBSON: Well, Graeme, did you find that there's an ethical way to manage an online reputation?
WOOD: Absolutely. You can take the good things that you've done and accentuate them. You can take the bad things that you've done and not mention them. The unethical ways, I think, would consist mostly of taking things that you haven't done and awarding yourself garlands for those, and that's what I think happened in this case.
Luckily, most of us are just not interesting enough for the New York Times to write about us when we do stupid things. But, you know, if we happen to suffer the fate of being so interesting that the New York Times does write about our crimes and alleged crimes, then the best we can do is do amazing things that are impressive and that are real.
CHAKRABARTI: Graeme Wood's article is in New York magazine. You can find a link to it at hereandnow.org. You can Google his name - again, it's G-R-A-E-M-E Wood - and find more of his work. Graeme, thank you so much for your time.
WOOD: Thanks for having me.
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CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jeremy, Brian Taylor(ph) wrote us this email. He says: What about people who have common names? He has a common name, and it's difficult to find him online. So maybe we should all be Brian Taylors.
HOBSON: Or John Smiths or...
CHAKRABARTI: Maybe not Meghna Chakrabarti.
HOBSON: That might be a tough one. Well, we'd love to hear what you think at hereandnow.org, at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. We're also on Twitter @hereandnow. I am @JeremyHobson.
CHAKRABARTI: And I'm @ MeghnaWBUR.
HOBSON: That's easier to type out than Meghna Chakrabarti.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, the last name took up too many characters on Twitter.
HOBSON: Well, the latest news is coming up next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.