"I'm just a face in the crowd,
Nothing to worry about,
Not even tryin' to stand out,
And I have nothing to say,
It's all been taken away,
I just behave and obey"
Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, Getting Smaller
Ten years ago our online identity, if we had one at all, was a simple affair to manage, comprising of an email address and perhaps an avatar name or two. Fast forward to the close of the first decade of the 21st century and it's an altogether more complex affair. You've probably got several email addresses, possibly some domain names and then there's the plethora of social networking sites that you frequent, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, MySpace and so on. All of which define the online version of "you" in much the same way as your passport, driving licence and bank account defines the offline "you".
The key difference is that the online version of "you" is much more subtle, complex and diffuse. We leave scraps of our path through the internet behind us. At the Being Digital conference in London earlier this year, I tried to explain this with the clumsy phrase "digital dandruff"; in the soon to be published book, "My Digital Footprint", Tony Fish far more elegiacally describes it as our digital footprint, which is "the digital 'cookie crumbs' that we all leave when we use the some form of digital service, application, appliance, object or device, or in some cases as we pass through or by".
Managing our digital identity through those sources we know about is a challenge for a significant percentage of the online population. But despite being a challenge, it's one which is achieveable if you're willing to put enough time and effort into it. But most of us don't have the time or are unwilling to put in the effort, so our digital cookie crumbs and the varying online versions of "us" stay online, ready for someone with the time and effort to search for, find and put together with profit in mind.
Some people take an active role in managing their digital footprint and try to exploit it. Some people also try to exploit other people's digital footprint. Let's look at a concrete example of this.