Putting a price on your identity

How much is your identity worth? A simple search about anything “identity”-related would yield multiple articles on protecting your identity from cybercriminals. Don’t give out your social security number online, be aware of safe websites, never send sensitive information over an email, etc. etc. According to Wikipedia,

Identity theft is a form of fraud or cheating of another person’s identity in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person’s identity, typically in order to access resources or obtain credit and other benefits in that person’s name. [...] The term identity theft was coined in 1964[1] and is actually a misnomer, since it is not literally possible to steal an identity as such – more accurate terms would be identity fraud or impersonation or identity cloning but identity theft has become commonplace. (4/6/11; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_theft)

Unfortunately, the term identity theft has come to imply money, bank accounts, social security numbers, and the like. Identity implies the same. What about the everyday Joe’s online identity, though? Who’s giving out tips on how to protect that? At this time, unless you are actively monitoring your search rankings (AND know how to fix it if something goes awry), you’re a sitting duck. Like this guy:

Poooooooor Jack Weppler. A few months back, Jack Weppler broke up with his SEO-conscious girlfriend, who promptly used memegenerator.net to generate images like the one above. Google crawled them, as Google does, the LOLcat-style images spread like wildfire once the public caught wind of the scandal. So the story goes. Weppler’s mother made a plea to Google (which also, incidentally, spread like wildfire):

My minor son’s ex-girlfriend took a copyrighted picture of him (we own copyright) and uploaded it more than 60 times to a website. On each image she wrote slanderous, defamatory and pornographic captions. The webmaster of the site states he removed the images 6 weeks ago, but Google Search still shows all the images. My son is so stressed out and embarrassed and we’ve done everything we can to get images off of Google.

And now…

And now, little Jack is but a meme in the wind. It’s all a big joke – he can either sue her ’til he keels over or laugh it off, embrace it, and try to profit from it. The real issue for Jack is that his identity was stolen. His credit cards are safe and his bank account never saw any unlawful activity, but his identity is out of his hands.

A more devastating example would be what happened to former US Senator Rick Santorum (go ahead, Google it). Thanks to Dan Savage and his listeners in response to Mr. Santorum’s anti-gay views, a search for “Santorum” now turns up what Rick himself described as “vulgarity”. That was 7 years ago. It’s too late, Mr. Santorum. Sit down.

There is too little price put on online identities, in my opinion. Safeguards against traditional identity theft are in place left and right, but a stolen online identity can produce effects just as immediate and potentially further reaching than traditionally considered. So what does one do about it? Well, nothing, as of right now. Controversy is the fuel to the fire when it comes to identity theft online – it’s the “hole in the net” discussed in my earlier post. The more you try to fight it or cover it up, the faster it spreads. What can you do to prevent it? It helps to not be a douche-bag (this removes motivation for altering an established identity… you did Google Santorum, right?). It also helps to have a robust, active online presence in existence. The more robust your SEO and the more broad your reach, the less likely simple sabotages like the one Jack Weppler fell victim to would be any issue at all.

Prevention and after-effects aside, why is this not something that has safeguards in effect like traditional identity theft? Simply put, because no one has put a real value on online identities. Those of us engaging in SEO for our own name (or brands, if you will) clearly understand the value of an online identity (not only reputation-wise, but also in the conversion to ad revenue thanks to traffic), but the majority of the world likely has no real idea of why it’s important to be online. My great-grandfather had no idea what the internet was, with the exception of Google being like a phone book that automatically found the entry. Many business owners I work with have no idea that they can find customer reviews online about their store, restaurant, etc. Until online identity (reputation, Googleableness, Klout, whatever you want to measure it in) is taken seriously by both users of the internet and legislators, the slope will continue to be steep and slippery. At this point, anyone without real web savvy (and a true understanding of how the internet works on both a technical and a social level) could have their identity taken from their hands and put into the hands of meddling masses. Tough cookies.