What does the web think of you?
This simple graphic illustrates one way the internet can be used to get an insight into a person, by analysing publicly available information associated with a name. I’ve chosen, for no particular reason, Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull. Through the rest of this post are similar profiles of a range of Australian public identities.
You can enter your own details into the Personas tool here. If you feel uncomfortable watching the process of this tool scouring the web for information about you, that’s the idea. It was designed to show you have a publicly available profile which you cannot control.
Developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s intended to highlight not just how you are seen on the web, but “for the viewer to reflect on our current and future world, where digital histories are as important if not more important than oral histories.”
Have you stopped to think about what information is available about you online?
The Personas tool just illustrates what kinds of judgments could be made about you based on historical data. But the internet is now increasingly about sharing real-time information about what people are doing right now through social networks like Twitter and Facebook . These sites are being exposed as minefields for their users.
There’s a steady stream of examples of bizarrely disproportionate consequences arising from the tiny pieces of content added to social networks. People have been fired over Facebook status updates, and berated at length in the national press for throwaway jokes on Twitter about narcoleptic dogs.
For the first time children’s lives, through decisions they haven’t made themselves but by parents and peers, are being documented in public detail, sometimes from conception through to birth and beyond.
Society is only starting to grapple with this, but at least some of the implications are clear. US President Barack Obama recently warned American children against being “stupid” - at any time, for fear that a moment of silliness would be recorded forever on the internet. “In the YouTube age,” he said, “whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life”.
Consider that YouTube only launched in 2005, Facebook opened to the public a mere three years ago, and the use of GPS tracking of your mobile device is still nascent technology. It’s clear we’re only at the beginning of what is nothing short of a revolution in the amount of personal information people share with the world about themselves, their relationships, their tastes, and their behaviour.
Today on The Punch we’re asking what you think of privacy, identity and the internet. We’re looking at this from a few perspectives. Over in this post, former AFP cybercrime officer and eBay executive Alastair MacGibbon looks the implications for fraud, but also the notion of identity itself. And in this post, web developer Lachlan Hardy gives his account of an increasingly common occurence - choosing to leave Facebook - and how difficult it was to complete the process.
Then there’s the question of which companies hold what information about you, and what the as-yet uncharted implications could be.
Start with Google. Depending on how you manage your accounts and what data you have provided to its various products over the years, this company holds a potentially massive amount of information about you. It may know you better than many of your closest friends.
It knows your general interests, through search tracking and a lot about the sites you visit regularly and the content you like. It knows the videos you watch because it owns YouTube, and what articles you read through Google Reader and the things you want to be kept up to speed on, through its news alerts.
These are all the familiar aspects of Google. But it might also know, for example, what you’re interested in buying through your searches. If you’ve used Google Checkout, it has your credit card details. It knows who you communicate with and what are saying to them, through Gmail and Google Voice, from which it may even have transcripts of conversations.
If you’ve ever provided your address to a Google product, it knows where you live - and probably has a picture of your house, from Street View.
If you have joined its GPS mapping system Latitude, it may even know where you are, right now.
And eventually it may know exactly what you look like. Google Image Search now allows the users to return pictures only containing faces. Here is the regular Image Search for footballer John Aloisi:
But here is the version with the search results set only to produce only images with faces in them:
The consensus among people I showed this to last week was simple. It’s creepy.
The face image search comes after Google’s 2006 acquisition of Neven Vision, a company that specialises in image processing. The benefits, Google said on its official blog at the time, “could be as simple as detecting whether or not a photo contains a person, or, one day, as complex as recognizing people, places, and objects.”
In other words, it may be able to look at a photograph and determine who’s in it.
Push all the data linked to an identity from Google products into a single file, and you have a powerful collection of data on that individual.
Google knows, of course, that it would be disastrous were it ever discovered that this information was being abused or falling into the wrong hands. Last week, the company announced the formation of the Data Liberation Front, a group of engineers who will dedicate themselves to making it easy for users to retrieve all the information the company holds about them across all its products.
And that’s before you get to true social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which harvest rich data about your activity and friends.
Facebook now counts some 300 million users worldwide. It knows your name, date of birth, and then reams of facts about your personal life – who you’re in a relationship with, your schools, your pets, who you know and how you met them.
There is mounting evidence of damaging social consequences of sharing information on these sites, portrayed by evangelists as essential life-enhancing tools. They have cost people jobs and ruined relationships, but there may be less obvious effects that take time to emerge.
Scientists are now scrambling to examine the psychological effects of our newly networked world. Researchers this month claimed, for example, that using Facebook may be good for the vital cognitive function known as working memory - while Twitter, on the other hand, makes you stupid.
There’s always the now well-canvassed risk that your bank account will be raided by criminals. But as MacGibbon points out, all the information on social networks may compromise more sensitive online accounts because sites like Facebook often contain the “secret” answers, like your first pet’s name, that allow you to reset your passwords on other websites.
When the motor car first appeared there were no speed limits, seat belts, indicator lights, or airbags, and only a few loose conventions on the rules of the road. Perhaps in some ways that’s where social networks are at the moment. Driving is made safer not just by enforcement of road rules but through public awareness campaigns on particular dangers - the latest example being the hugely viral campaign on texting while driving.
It would be utterly bizarre to see TV ads warning on the dangers of using the internet, and the last thing many people will want to hear is a politician telling them what they should and shouldn’t do online.
But with our notions of privacy and identity - and our willingness to share information about ourselves - evolving so rapidly, it may be just a matter of time.
What do you think of this? Is it something government should be involved in? Does privacy need global policing? Or is it better left self-regulated? Share your thoughts and social networking stories in the comments.