Erase Online Infamy: Lies, slander, binging, sexting

I wrote this article under contract to the leading European security magazine and Blog, at which I typically write under my real name. (Ellery is a pen name).

Upon submission, my editor haggled over the usual issues of regional euphemisms (not allowed), eclectic metaphors (encouraged) and brevity (my submissions tend exceed the word limit by 3 or 4x). But this time, she also asked me to cut a section that I feel is critical to the overall thrust. That section is titled “Create Digital Chaff”

I am neither a stakeholder nor an editor at that magazine. Their editors have every right to set the terms and tone of anything they publish. But sensing my qualms over personal ethics and reputation, my editor released the article from contract and suggested that I publish in a venue with an edgy approach to privacy. I considered farming it out to Wired, CNet or PC Magazine, but it was written at a level and style intended for a very different audience. And so, it appears here, in my own Blog. The controversial section is intact and in red, below. Of course, Wild Ducks will see nothing controversial in a perfectly logical recommendation.

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The web is filled with tutorials on how to block tracking, hide purchases and credit history—even how to shift your identity deep under­cover.

But what about search results linked to your name, organization or your past. What can be done?

Legal remedies are rarely effective. The Internet is untamed. Data spreads like wildfire and it’s difficult to separ­ate opinion from slander. But, you can counter undesir­able content.

Catalogue the Irritants

Start by listing and prioritizing your pain. Search your name in all the ways you are known. Try several search engines, not just Google. Check image results and Usenet (news groups).

Record disparaging search results in 7 columns:

  • Search terms that yield the offending page
  • URL                       address of unflattering material
  • Severity                 damage to your reputation
  • Owner or Author   contact info of traceable party
  • Which role?           author, site admin, hosting service?
  • Inbound links         search on “Links:{Page_URL}”
  • Disposition             left msg, success, failure, etc

Sort pages in descending order of severity. As you resolve issues, reduce severity to zero, but save entries for follow up. With just a few offensive pages, it may take a few hours to perform the tasks described.

The Process

Most posts boil down to an individual author rather than a faceless organization. You can appeal, bargain, redirect, bury or dis­credit a source, sometimes employing several strategies. With reputation is at stake, all is fair.

Removing or Correcting Content

First, determine if you are more likely to influence the web developer, site host, or author who cre­ated unflat­tering mater­ial (start with him, if pos­sible).

Ascertain if the author is likely to influence readers that matter to you. After all, without creed, rants cannot Infamy Callout 1ado much damage.

If the source is credible, appeal directly. In some cases, re­marks about you may be immaterial to his point. If it is impos­sible to find the source or if there is no meeting of minds, con­tact the site owner or hosting service—daunting, but not im­possible. GoDaddy, the largest host­ing site[1], often takes down entire sites in response to complaints.

Try pleading, bargaining or swapping favors. (But never pay! Extortion is best handled by courts). Negotiate these actions:

  • Change names, keywords and metatags. Avoid taking down the page for 2 weeks.
  • Point domain or URL to a different site
  • Post an apology or correction at searchable pages that contain offending material. (Avoid describing the slander. Use different phrases).
  • Add chaff (below). It reduces discovery.

Takedown the Search Cache

Check the page cache of each search (click the arrow to the right of Google results). File takedown requests, especially if material is obscene or you can argue it is untruthful or slander.

Check referring sites. They may excerpt or echo defamation. In the UK, freedom of expression is becoming a gray area. Nevertheless, in practice, the Internet gives everyone a soap box. So our next technique employs misdirection and ‘noise’ rather than confrontation.

Create Digital Chaff

To protect from missiles, some aircraft eject ‘chaff’. The burning strips of foil lure guided munitions by presenting a target that is more attractive than the plane. Likewise, you can de­ploy digital “chaff” by planting information Infamy Callout 2that overwhelms search results, leading viewers away from de­famatory links via redirection or con­fusion. Your goal: change search result ranking.

Chaff-s

US Air Force jet ejects burning chaff

Consider photos or events that you find untruthful or embar­rassing. Ask friends with popular web pages to add content about the photo associating ficti­tious names (not yours). Con­versely, get them to post your name in articles that dis­tance you from the activity in ways that seemingly make it impossible for you to fit the offensive descriptions.

Use your imagination, but don’t make up lies. Eventually, they catch up with you. Instead, fill the web with news, trivia, reviews, and all things positive. Create content that pulls the focus of searches that previously led to pages you wish to suppress.

Finally, avoid SEO tricks to lure search engines,[2] such as cross-links, robot-generated hits or invisible text and meta­data not directly related to con­tent. Infamy Callout 3Search engines de­tect rigging. Manip­ula­tion or deceit will de­mote your page rank, negating hours of hard work.

Looking forward, consider ways to avoid letting your own data lead to future embarrassment…

Social Media

Facebook isn’t the only social media site. They include any site with ‘walls’, feeds or link sharing. Likewise, Blogs and Blog comments create a threat beacon.

Social media can ruin reputations as surely as it shares photos and connects friends. Searchable from within and outside, they spread online activities like vines. Your wall and timeline will easily outlive you!

Learn privacy controls. Start by enabling all restrictions and then isolate friends and colleagues into circles. This partitions friends and colleagues into venues asso­ciated with your various hats. Of course, friends can be in several of your circles, but it gives you the ability to restrict your wall or photos to individuals likely to appreci­ate the context and less likely to amplify your accidents and oversights.

Faced with privacy concerns, Facebook recently added granular controls and Google unified privacy policies across services. Most sites offer ways to enable and disable features or even temporarily suspend tracking. If yours doesn’t, find a more reputable service.

Scrutinize, photo tagging options. Facebook users can block tagging of photos and remove their name on photos that others post. (Don’t take too much comfort—They also use facial rec­ognition to encourage other users to ID you. In the universe of photos that include you, only a fraction was posted by you.)

Clean up Cloud Services

Do you use iCloud, Google Drive, or Skydrive? Infamy Callout 4How about Dropbox, SugarSync or backup services Carbonite or Mozy?

Cloud services are great collaboration tools. They backup folders and stream personal media. Like social networks, they present another leaky conduit for your private life.

Check that sync folders are encrypted or unlikely to convey personal or unflattering material. Review shared links: Never grant access to everyone or let anyone access everything. Administer your friends, family and colleagues on a need-to-know basis. Your data needs a defense perimeter.

Create an Alter Ego

Ellery isn’t my real name. It is the alias with which I publish AWildDuck. But the fact that I acknowledge that I have another identity and occasional references to my career, geographic location and age, demonstrates that I am either very foolish or not making a serious effort to prevent discovery.

Archival Sites

Unfortunate news for anyone trying to erase history: The Wayback Machine at www.archive.org takes snapshots of the entire Internet every day. Visi­tors click a calendar to travel back in time and view a web or page as it once appeared.

Al­though content does not appear in search results, the com­ments you posted about the boss’ daughter are viewable to any visitor—no login required! Advice concerning archive sites: “Get past it!” They are not likely a threat, but they remind us that in the Internet Age, history cannot be erased.

A Dose of Prevention

Putting anything online—even email—lets a cat out of a bag. You can corral it and hope that it doesn’t eat the neigh­bor’s daisies, but you cannot get it back into the bag. That’s why we focus on disguise, chaff and misdirection. If the neighbors are looking at your shiny car and the cat looks more like a dog belonging to someone else, it is less likely to draw attention.

As you hunt authors of unflattering detritus and imple­ment containment, make a resolution to watch what you say online. Online content is never private. Cameras and recorders are everywhere and they aren’t operated by friends. Your trail will easily outlive you.

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[1] In April 2005, Go Daddy (aka Wild West Domains) surpassed Network Solutions as the largest ICANN-accredited registrar on the Internet [domain names registered].
Source: web-hosting-top.com. Stats of 4/27/2005, and up to the date of this posting.

[2] SEO = Search Engine Optimization

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