Published on Thursday, 25 Aug, 2022
Digital shadow inheritance
Earlier this year I had a big life moment: I had a child. As with all big life moments it’s come with a lot of introspection for me, and one of the things that I pondered a lot and felt most strongly about was around how much or little to post online about them; how much of a trail of their life I’d be creating for them to inherit in the future.
So far, I haven’t shared my kid’s name or birth date publicly. The most ‘visible’ thing I’ve shared was a photo where their face isn’t properly visible.
I wouldn’t dare to tell other people what to do on this topic, or judge anyone else for sharing online, in the same way that I wouldn’t about any other parenting decisions. I actually really love seeing content that other families have chosen to share, and I feel privileged to be able to do so. However, I wanted to write this post as a summary of how I’m personally feeling, as something that I can point friends and family towards if needed. As always I thought I’d put it on my site in case it’s of use to anyone else.
Digital shadows are almost inevitable to some degree
Let’s start quickly by running through the idea of a “digital footprint”, or “digital shadow”. As a quick explainer, I quite like the little animation on myshadow.org. They describe a digital shadow as “the sum of all the data that we leave behind every time we use a digital service, such as the Internet or a mobile phone”. This could be anything from where we go, what apps we use, who our friends are, what our socio economic status is, what goods we buy, what we look like, where we live or work, or anything else that can be inferred.
For children being born nowadays, their shadow can be formed for them, even before birth, with images and information going all the way back to early scans being shared online.
I find this a really fascinating tech ethics topic. As is common with this kind of thing, there’s no right or wrong answer, and I’m hugely intrigued to see how things evolve over time. For example will it eventually be weird for kids who don’t have all of their life online? Could it ever cause problems for things like identity or relationship verification for anyone who shies away from creating these kind of artefacts in the long run?
I can’t tell! However, as things stand right now, and particularly through working in the tech industry and seeing a lot of discourse around these kind of areas, I generally try to err on the side of minimising my shadow whenever possible. I’m unhappy with the shadow I already have, with what can be inferred about me, and what I can’t get removed. So I’m already very biased, but with a child in mind some of the things that I’m concerned about in the present are topics like the following:
I personally don’t want to share anything that they can’t consent to
At its most basic level, I’m aware that my kid hasn’t given permission to share anything, and they may later have issue with the choices that I’ve made. Despite GDPR’s ‘Right to erasure’ in practice it’s still extremely hard to hunt down and remove all references to something we don’t want online. Not everything is at Cher Scarlett’s level of traumatic content, but equally I wouldn’t want unflattering baby photos or personal data made available for anyone, and I don’t want to make assumptions that my child will be ok with it. Even photos that I think are cute could still be a risk of bullying, end up as a meme, or be used by others for all kinds of purposes.
Everyone’s kid is obviously the most special in the world, but in all seriousness I don’t know what they’ll go on to do. Maybe they’ll be Prime Minister, and have their upbringing used against them. Maybe they’ll be a spy. Maybe they’ll have an abusive partner. I don’t know what their life will be like, but I’d like to leave it up to them as to what information is shared and how they’re judged online.
We can’t tell what technological or societal changes will happen in the future
When it comes to the tech apocalypse people usually jump to things like Skynet or the machine uprising in the Matrix, but the reality is that there’s already a lot of abuse of what people already have online.
There are machine learning training data sets being created without consent, and deep fakes being created using online image and voice references. Facebook has handed over private data, and there are warnings that people’s period or fertility tracking apps could become liabilities now Roe v Wade has been overturned. Our norms now as we share content and data will not be the norms of the future, and the more I put out there, the more potential there is for harm from unknown tech or societal changes in the future.
Whilst a small one, social engineering is still a risk
Social engineering in a tech context involves manipulating people into doing things or sharing information. It’s. A confidence trick, and often starts by using some previously known details. This is something that could be targeted at my kid, me, other family members, or friends.
Some examples: maybe I post a photo of my kid on holiday, and a scammer calls my mum to say that there’s been a terrible accident and she needs to pay hospital costs immediately. It’s the middle of the night where we are, and we’re not picking up, so she pays to be safe. Alternatively, a total stranger messages my child online, pretending to be a friend of the family who they met loads of times growing up, including at all the events they can list from me sharing photos online.
You may notice I’m not even writing using gendered pronouns. This is a bit extreme for sure, but when I’ve thought about it, it’s just information that random internet people don’t need to know, and using gendered pronouns doesn’t add anything to this post. Where information is unnecessary, I’d prefer to err on the side of leaving it out.
Avoiding the darker side of the web
This is maybe the “obvious” one. As anyone who’s ever posted a “normal” photo showing their feet probably knows, creeps can easily and unexpectedly come out of the woodwork. One person’s normal is another’s kink, and as much as we may not want to think about photos of our kids being seen in that way, it’s a very real risk.
This is abuse that they may never know about, but it can be coupled with dangers offline too. I sometimes see people posting things like the school their child goes to. Again, I’m not judging, and I’m also aware that it’s extremely low risk that anyone ever acts on this information, but for me the potential downsides by far outweigh any upsides of sharing this kind of thing.
Having previously worked in the Financial Crime area I also know that identify theft and creating false narratives is big business. There’s again a small but important risk around either having photos stolen to build up a fake identity for an individual, or for people to use to pad out their own identities – such as a scammer sharing photos of their cute but sick kid who needs help with treatment costs, or a dating scammer sharing photos of their “family”.
Teaching about boundaries and privacy
And finally, I’d like to start teaching them early that not everything needs to be shared extensively, either online or offline. That it’s ok to have different levels of privacy, and to be deliberate and mindful about our actions and what we choose to share with others. To do this well, I don’t want to start from a place where I’ve already made a huge number of decisions for them; setting boundaries that they may not actually be ok with.
It’s a potentially big call just for a few likes
To some, this may all seem really overblown and paranoid. “Everyone shares stuff, it’s no big deal!”. A few times I’ve also found myself tempted to post something more identifying or personal, but it comes back to this: I may get a few likes or laughs in the short term, but that’d be for me, and not for the benefit of my kid. Personally there’s just not enough benefits for me to trade off against some of the potentially huge downsides I’ve listed above.
But if I’m wrong and am accidentally ostracising them from society somehow, or if they later choose to share more of their life online, then we can always do a big (but still selective) upload! But for me this should come from them, and not from me, and we can’t do it in reverse.