“I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record …”
-The Violent Femmes, 1983
During my grade school and high school days, there was no statement that instilled so much fear as that of a mark on your “permanent record.” As an adult, I can say that I honestly have no idea what my permanent record looked like, what was on it, who kept it, or where it is today. But the threat was enough to keep us in line, and think twice before committing some heinous infraction – or saying something we’d regret later.
It seems a bit silly to think about now. My school friends and I joke about our permanent records, and the little things that could get us a mark, like not having our knee socks pulled all the way up, or cracking a joke in class. Or refusing to wear gym shoes, which I did most of my senior year (I just didn’t like the feel of them back then, and went barefoot in gym class whenever I could.)
That’s what your permanent record meant back then. It was the 1980s, well before the birth of the internet as we know it, and of course, before the oversight of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and all the other online entities that now hold the keys to our permanent records.
In general terms, I suppose I know what’s on my permanent record today – words and phrases I’ve searched for, products I’ve purchased (or considered purchasing), posts I’ve engaged with on social media, articles I’ve read, things I’ve shared, places I’ve checked in, music I’ve downloaded. Yet the idea of a permanent record is still as mystifying as it was when I was a kid. I don’t know exactly what they were marking down back then, and always had to assume they were recording everything they witnessed.
Which today, is a lot.
We’re no longer under the watchful eyes of our teachers. Every move is being tracked and logged. Profiles are being created about us that create opportunities for marketers, politicians, and statisticians to make assumptions about who we are, what we’ll buy, and who we’ll vote for. And while we didn’t necessarily willingly offer up this information as a child (in fact, we tried to hide our deeds as much as possible), today we’re sharing it by the truckload on public platforms that are accessible to just about anyone who can pay for it or create an app to tap into it.
Let that sink in. We say we want our privacy, but we put our lives out there for the world to see. Perhaps we need to revisit what privacy truly means, and as consumers, make clear our expectations to the almighty overseers of our permanent records.
Facebook has caught the brunt of the privacy backlash that’s occurred over the last few months, and perhaps, rightfully so. Friends are deactivating their profiles, or simply not logging on as frequently as they once did. But Facebook, while their infraction was quite significant, is just the tip of the iceberg. Every platform on which you have an account is collecting information about you. Netflix knows what type of movies you like to watch. Amazon knows your shopping habits. Streaming music services know your music preferences. But we accept this type of permanent record creation because it’s helpful to us. These services suggest things we might like. They can remind us when we may be running out of something.
Now, consider your consumer credit report. There’s a wealth of information about you that’s being tracked that really has nothing to do with your activity online. But it’s being compiled nonetheless. And we accept this, too, because without a credit history, we can’t do things like buy a car or home, or even rent an apartment.
Will the time come when we begin to accept the permanent record that Facebook is compiling about us, or will it continue to be the poster child for the misguided sharing of data and our perceived invasion of privacy? You play a big role in this collection of data, and here’s how you can help gain some control over it:
- Think before you post, comment, or share. Consider the “mark” on your permanent record each time you share a sad puppy or like a page.
- Stop doing those quiz things. You know, the ones your friends share that ask things like your first car, your favorite color, your celebrity crush. And while the data gathering quizzes like “Which 1920s Movie Star Are You?” are mostly gone now, don’t do those either.
- Realize that everything you do online is being catalogued, somewhere and in some way. You have a permanent record based on your activity and behavior. And you’re also a part of many demographic target groups who have their own permanent records.
- As I mentioned above, reconsider your definition of “privacy” and what your expectations are. Think about how much of that privacy you’re willing to give up to reap the benefits of seeing content and receiving offers and deals specifically designed for you and your interests.
- Ask yourself if you even want to be a part of social media platforms or other online services that track your activity. You may decide the risk isn’t worth it.
While thoughts about your online permanent record may cause you some distress, focus on what you can control and set your standard for your comfort level when it comes to your online activity.