June 9th, 2006

The Coming Privacy Backlash


The “social” media revolution has everyone letting it all hang out all over the “open web,” so it should come as no surprise that the NSA is taking advantage of all this voluntary disclosure of personal information:

“I AM continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves.” So says Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP, a Silicon Valley-based maker of encryption software. He is far from alone in noticing that fast-growing social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster are a snoop’s dream.

New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon’s National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks. And it could harness advances in internet technology – specifically the forthcoming “semantic web” championed by the web standards organisation W3C – to combine data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals.

Looks like News Corp isn’t the only one to see the data mining potential.

There is a privacy backlash coming that is going to throw cold water on MySpace, Web 2.0, and all the related frothing over anything with the word “social.”

In any case, it turns out only 16% of web users have drunk the “social media” Koolaid:

Nielsen has identified a group, which it dubbed “My.internet,” that’s especially likely to visit networking sites. Sixteen percent of Web users belong to this group, which has a median age of 32 (that number might skew high, Gibs said, because Nielsen’s research doesn’t include anyone younger than 18). Nearly all members of this group–99 percent–visit blogs; 84 percent are members of an online community; 57 percent have their own blogs; and 22 percent use RSS feeds.

The thing about young web users is that they’re not stupid — young people will get wise to the liability of all this public activity online.

And for those young people who don’t wise up, their parents aren’t stupid:

Most parents love the Internet and want their children to use it. But a new survey finds that almost as many also fear the online world especially social networking sites such as MySpace and worry that their kids will get in trouble with people they meet.

The study, which was done online May 5-10 by Insight Research Group with a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percentage points, says 80% of parents are concerned about children meeting sexual predators online.

  • I'm not sure if I agree that there will be a backlash. We have become too used to an online interaction based on social-surveillance that to extend that to the government won't strike fear in many modern, young hearts. I also have written about this a few times.

  • Karl

    One last link because I have work to do.

    The Pentagon doesn't need to datamine MySpace...

    Google has done it for them.

    So has any search engine that does a proper job of indexing the web.

    From here I could write a Perl script to download users with a high frequency of certain keywords and spider from there and get their friends, associates, and so forth.

  • Karl

    BTW - I don't think you'll see a real 'backlash' happen.

    It's the parable of the frog. Drop a frog into boiling watter, he'll jump out. Drop a frog into a pot of pleasantly warm water, stoke the heat slowly, and the frog will be dead before he knows there's a problem.

    We are giving up our *identities* for convienience - and long term - there will be severe consequences when they are exploited on a scale we can yet imagine.

    BTW - you had an excellent post on this a while back. The discussion threat there is indicative of where this will go:


  • Karl

    You have readers of this blog, and elsewhere among the digerati, who have poo-pooed these concerns - they believe that it is inevitable that we will live 'open' lives and share *everything* online in the open. That the only thing that matters isn't how much we share, but in what people and organizations do with it. It's a growing herd mentality. That we have a right to share everything about ourselves with the public - and it's someone else's fault if it is misused.

    Here is another story: Why Web 2.0 will end your privacy

    Happy to see this starting to bubble up. Lots of education needs to take place here.

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