Good luck hiding your age in an age where nothing is private

Felicity Price says there's not much point in lying about your age anymore.
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Felicity Price says there's not much point in lying about your age anymore.

OPINION: After years of fudging my age, embracing alternative facts and pretending I was years younger, I finally came out in the open on my 65th birthday and threw a big party.

After all, at one stage, sick from chemotherapy and feeling half dead, I thought I'd never make it. What better reason than to celebrate living on another 16 years after the Big C than beating it (for now, anyway) and open the champagne? Even more reason to celebrate a few days later – my first pension payment arrived.

But realistically, had I really kept my age a secret all that time? Anyone with half a knowledge of Google and online searches these days can find out pretty much anything about an individual if they know where to look.

It's astonishing how much a search on yourself can reveal, especially when you get further down the search pages.

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Earlier this year, I took a tertiary course in Social Media and Public Life – an astonishing insight into just how much information about individuals is available on the internet. 

Facebook and all the social platforms are an obvious example, but there are miles more. Ever applied for a consent of any sort? Ever had to give evidence in court? Ever objected to a development or made a formal complaint? Chances are, a search will turn these up eventually and there for all to see is not only your name, but often your address and age as well.

Never in human history has so much information been available to so many, thanks to the internet. And not everyone is totally happy with that.

Two thirds of all Kiwis reported in a survey they were concerned or very concerned about personal information being shared online. Women in particular were concerned. They weren't so worried about information shared between government departments or health providers, but the lack of control around anything they had posted, shared, liked, or supplied online, including to service providers.

How often have you had to put your date of birth and address into an online form? Who else has access to that information? Under our privacy laws, there are strict rules around database sharing, but because we don't have any control over what happens to our personal details after we provide them, we naturally fear the worst.

These days, you can find out pretty much anything on the internet.
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These days, you can find out pretty much anything on the internet.

Try it for yourself - go to Google, log in (or create an account) and you can see how much Google knows about you, including your date of birth. It will be in Facebook, too, if you've put it into your profile. You can manage your profile and how much people can see, but you can't remove it – your personal details will remain somewhere inside Google and Facebook forever.

With 2.5 million Kiwis on Facebook, that's a lot of information – and it's that information (age, location, preferences, Facebook likes and posts) that provides the fuel for targeted Facebook advertising (unless, like a growing number of people, you have an ad blocker).

At the same time, Facebook and Google know so much about us they get to decide what we see and don't see by algorithmically editing the web.

Facebook cuts posts from people who don't share the same views as us, and Google also adds a filter bubble depending on past searches we've made – which are stored away in its indelible memory. Thanks to their complicated and very clever algorithms, it is becoming increasingly hard to watch or see something that's not been tailored to meet our preferences.

Some would say it doesn't matter. Some people don't care if their preferences are known and their age and address are public knowledge. But most of us do. And not just because we're trying to turn back the clock and pretend we're younger than we actually are.

I've several friends who are about to hit their three-score-years-and-ten. But I don't know exactly which year that's going to happen and really, I'd rather not.

Suffice to know they've got their SuperGold Card and their pension. After 65, the years become so precious we don't want to count them anymore. Until we reach some great old age like 90. Then, like my mother, we've earned bragging rights.

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Just exactly when we become "elderly" is debatable. According to media reports of accidental deaths, anyone over 60 tends to be described as elderly, but those reports tend to be written in newsrooms where the reporters are not long out of journalism school.

The older we get, the further away "elderly" seems. For me, I've pushed it right back to my late 70s. But if I'm lucky enough to make it past my three-score-and-ten, I'll no doubt regard someone as elderly once they're over 80.

By then Facebook will know so much about everyone, it will have imploded. Or, more likely, we'll have moved onto something else. Anecdotally, younger people are already dropping Facebook for other social platforms, complaining that there are too many older people (parents and grandparents for example) on Facebook now and it's no longer cool to be there.

By the time I'm 80, social media will no doubt be replaced by Artificial Intelligence and robots will do all our socialising for us.

Felicity Price ONZM, is an ex-journalist who now writes life & style stories for Stuff.

 - Stuff

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