Wednesday, February 27

Everyone Gets Their 15 Minutes of Privacy

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the lasting power of your "social self" online. The personal information that you divulge online in social networks, on your blog, on Flickr, in your Linked In resume.

The current hype is about unsubscribing from social networks like Facebook. The NY Times started it with this article. It was picked up by various bloggers testing the theory by trying to unjack themselves from the social net. There is even a scary case study on Symantec's site.

In summary, you can take your real self out of the Internet, but your virtual self hangs around. It's enough to make you consider ripping out your WiFi and restocking those Y2K rations.

(On a side note, it reminds of how difficult it was back in the day to cancel your AOL account. It was a multi-step process involving phone calls to customer service and sometimes written letters. Which apparently is still an issue.)

But the lasting power of your online information is going to cause all kinds of issues over the next few years. Especially as high school students try to get into college and then try to get a job.

Think a screwed up credit rating has lasting power? Imagine when college entry advisers and HR departments start looking up your background online. Use the Google Face search engine (trust me, it is coming) to find those Webshots party photos. Find that MySpace page where you confessed to getting wasted with the football team right next to the NORML logo. All of which you deleted years ago.

It is all sitting somewhere just waiting to be indexed, stored, and dug up at the wrong moment -- like your mom showing off your naked baby bath photos to your prom date.

But every online challenge spawns a whole new generation of service industries. Soon there will be companies to which recruiters can outsource the background checks. And there will be companies that individuals can hire to track down this latent information and scrub as much of it as possible. All for a fee. All automated. should invest in both and rake in the cash from recruiters and job seekers, just like Sylvester McMonkey McBean and his Star On/Off Machine.

These privacy finders/erasers will be making money until Google gets slammed from every angle over privacy issues and just offers the service for free to keep themselves out of court. Then a whole industry will vanish into a simple Google self-service tool. Which sounds like a no brainer, until you consider that the search engine offered a tool to scrub your search history with them, and got sued by privacy watchdogs.

The most recent hint at the future is the "people search engine" Spock. It is set up to automatically collect all the public information attached to your name, consolidate it on an official-looking page, and then email you with a request to "verify" it. Digital Blackmail. If you verify it, then you justify its existence. If you don't, then you risk others finding you on it with wrong information.

They make it sound so helpful:

"Spock combines two very powerful forces. First, our technology organizes web content about people into easily understood search results. We search for information on bio pages, social networks, news sites, blogs, directories …pretty much every place imaginable on the Internet. Second, the Spock community contributes information to help enhance the search experience. Members can add tags, pictures, and web links or simply vote on existing information to increase its relevance. Anyone can join to help make search better for everyone.”

“But Spock is not a social network. Don’t get me wrong, we love social networks. We just think that there are already plenty of great options out there for sharing among friends. Spock is a people search application - once you find who you are looking for, go ahead and click through to see where they are on the web.”

“Spock lets you determine where people find you on the Internet. When you sign up for Spock you can claim your search result and shape what information people see. Plus, when there is new information about you on the Internet we can send you an alert so you are always up to date.”

But there is always a dark side (from Wired Magazine):
Spock, a search engine for finding people, mixes search with social-networking tools like personal profiles and tagging. But you don't have to join to have a profile on Spock. In fact, you may be shocked to see what your profile says about you.

For example: Mike X. is a fat, retarded pimp who likes screwing prostitutes. Mary Y. works in a strip club downtown and owns a vibrator. Joe Z. is a man-whore who hangs out at stranger's houses and drinks rum and coke.

If you searched Spock using the real names of these high school teenagers, those are the kind of tags you'd find.

These kids have a few things in common: They, along with 12,000 other people, recently downloaded a "Mad Libs"-like Facebook application and wrote stories about themselves and their friends, filling the blanks with scandalous terms.

But they didn't realize the application was created by Spock, which debuted last week. And they were horrified to discover that Spock used the terms they supplied to build public profiles on them and other Facebook members.

This is an email I received from them recently:

Subject: See what your friends are doing on the web

Hi Stephen,

Spock can find everyone you know on the web in a single search. Find out where your friends have been networking with people, posting pictures, and sharing information.

Click here to search now.

I'm waiting for the "Erase your identity on the web for $50" email to show up at any time. And I might actually click it.


Anonymous said...

I was discussing this with a friend a few days back and "wishing" that all my online identities had expiration dates. Obviously that's never going to happen, so i suppose i'll be paying the $50 too. Great article.

Asian Driver said...

If a company can charge $1,000 + to protect your identity, I think $50 to wipe out your online identity is a pretty damn good deal.

What a great idea for a new business (if I weren't already busy negotiating a deal with Jacques Cousteau's children to open up an ad network on our oceans, I would be all over this).