Already, the web sites you visit reshape themselves before you like a carnivorous school of fish, and this is only the beginning. Right now, a huge chunk of what you’ve ever looked at on the Internet is sitting in databases all across the world. The line separating all that it might say about you, good or bad, is as thin as the letters of your name. If and when that wall breaks down, the numbers may overwhelm the name. The unconsciously created profile may mean more than the examined self I’ve sought to build.
Most privacy debates have been couched in technical. We read about how Google bypassed Safari’s privacy settings, whatever those were. Or we read the details about how Facebook tracks you with those friendly Like buttons. Behind the details, however, are a tangle of philosophical issues that are at the heart of the struggle between privacy advocates and online advertising companies: What is anonymity? What is identity? How similar are humans and machines? This essay is an attempt to think through those questions.