Saturday, June 10, 2006

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Social networking

"I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves."
Colleague and pal Jon Callas is quoted in a New Scientist article posted yesterday, which talks about social networking and the privacy issues therein. It seems that, according to the article, the NSA has just figured out that it can collect useful information that people have voluntarily posted about themselves on the Internet, and can use it "to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals."

OK, that's not rocket science, of course, and I'm sure that this technique isn't really a new revelation for the NSA. But it is worth pointing out that while people are wildly critical of the collection of phone records, many of those same people are happy to post buddy lists, favourite web bookmarks, amazon.com wish lists, and all sort of other personal information in the most readily and publicly accessible database ever created: the worldwide web.

Jon reminds us:

"You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your résumé. People don't realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days."
Each social network strives to collect as much information on its own as it can, of course, since that adds perceived value to that network, differentiating it from the others, its competition. Notwithstanding that, though, Google and the other search engines give us an index into the distributed database that comprises all of these different pieces — individual web sites, blogs, MySpace, Friendster, and so on — making it easy for anyone to harvest it.

And as the article points out, efforts to standardize the format of information on the web, moved by a desire to make the information easier to find and use, exacerbate the privacy issues precisely because they will make the information easier to find and use.

The other thing that many people don't think about, and that the article doesn't mention, is that this stuff is forever. People often post what they consider to be transient information, figuring that they'll take it off soon, or that they'll change it with their moods. And yet there are backups and archives, and there are engines harvesting this that will keep everything they ever find.

Amid warnings that the juggernaut of expanded information availability and collection is "unstoppable", Jon tells us that we, ourselves are the only controls:

Callas thinks people have to wise up to how much information about themselves they should divulge on public websites. It may sound obvious, he says, but being discreet is a big part of maintaining privacy.
That's the best advice that we have; I choose to post publicly as I do here, fully knowing how public (and how permanent) it is. That said, we also have to understand how much is out of our direct control — how much is known about us through our credit cards, our travel, and public information that's now very easy to collect automatically.


Update (5:30 p.m.): Today's New York Times has an interesting related article:

Many companies that recruit on college campuses have been using search engines like Google and Yahoo to conduct background checks on seniors looking for their first job. But now, college career counselors and other experts say, some recruiters are looking up applicants on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Xanga and Friendster, where college students often post risqué or teasing photographs and provocative comments about drinking, recreational drug use and sexual exploits in what some mistakenly believe is relative privacy. When viewed by corporate recruiters or admissions officials at graduate and professional schools, such pages can make students look immature and unprofessional, at best.

1 comment:

Jim Fenton said...

Is it possible that more people would have comments on this article if the comments weren't forever?

Who expected, back in the heyday of Usenet newsgroups (say, 1990 or so) that the posts would be available to anyone, 16 years later, with a couple mouse clicks? At least the users of social networking sites are dealing with a privacy issue that results from current technology. For circa-1990 Usenet posters, the technology to index and search all those posts hadn't been invented yet. I'm glad that (apparently) I didn't post anything much more embarrassing than questions about how to run Unix on a PS/2!