Just Because You Don’t Give Your Personal Data to Google Doesn’t Mean They Can’t Acquire It
[A story a few days ago (March 2012) brought this post to mind… Here’s the recent story – Walmart buys a Facebook-based calendar app to get a look at customers’ dates: “The Social Calendar app and its file of 110 million birthdays and other events, acquired from Newput Corp., will give Walmart the ability to expand its efforts to dig deeper into the lives of customers—allowing customers to make purchases on Walmart.com directly from event reminders from the Web or their mobile device.” It’s time I started brushing up on my legal understanding, I think: in the UK, would data protection legislation prevent one company from buying another for its data, and then using that data for a different reason to the reason for which it was collected? And if so, how is different defined? Could the data be used to annotate/be annotated by other data to create a derived product? Hmm… And how will #midata fit in with all this? eg We Can Haz Our Personal Data Back from Corporates?]
A long time ago, I wrote:
A couple of weeks ago [err, that’ll be years now;-)], I was telling a colleague about a podcast I’d heard earlier that day: Future Proofing Your Privacy. At the start of the talk, the speaker, Mark Hedland, tells of how he posted to an online group a post that said…
For those of you who haven’t followed the links, here’s a recap. Something that was posted over 10 years ago to a part of the web that wasn’t supposed to be being archived, was – and now Mark Hedland can show how foolish he was then in thinking that [what] he was saying then would disappear.
As we talked, my colleague [“Sam Smith”] mentioned how 5 or so years ago they had posted a request to a news group asking for a translation of a traditional, Canadian French folk song, a translation they have since lost, along with the name of the song. (Actually, it wasn’t a song, French or Canadian, but it was to do with translation; I have changed the specific details to protect my colleague’s privacy!)
Two minutes after leaving their office (or maybe it was three, certainly no longer than that) I mailed my colleague a link to a Google Groups search page containing their long lost post. The query used the equivalent of these search terms: translation song “sam smith”. The post being searched for was the third item in the list of search results.
And so, as Google continues to roll out its social circle search facilities and use the people you know (and the people they know) to inform what search results you see, [and as Google buys up other social search companies, such as Aardvark (e.g. Google Buys Human-driven Search Engine Aardvark: Will It Make It to the Main SERPS?)], it’s worth bearing in mind a few things:
1) Just because you haven’t given Google your Twitter details, Google may know you’re my friend becuase I have given Google my twitter details and my friends and followers lists are public (an ‘asymmetric disclosure’? So for example, for a symmetric disclosure, Google might only use the belief that we’re friends if I follow you AND you have given Google your Twitter credentials AND you follow me. But if it you uses you to inform my results simply because I follow you, that would be asymmetric?)
2) Just because you haven’t given Google any personal info, Google might buy a company you have disclosed personal information to and then assimilate it into their growing total information awareness… (You do know Google owns Youtube, don’t you, and so has a pretty good idea of everything you’ve watched on it?;-)
3) Your mum may be influencing your search results… And you might be influencing your kids’ results… ;-)
PS a not evil thing to do would be to give users of an acquired service a guaranteed period of grace between the announcement that company has been acquired and the time when Google first has access to personal data, with the guarantee that users can withdraw from the service within that period and have their records permanently deleted.
PPS what does Google know about you? Here are two things to try: if you have a Google account, see who’s in your social circle; and whether or not you have a Google account, see what Google’s social graph API can turn up about you… .
PPPS if you’re on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, Mashed In provides a widget based tool for letting other people on those networks see how closely linked they are to you… The asymmetries might arise here from all over the place, depending on what Mashed In is actually doing (I’ll try to do some digging…). For example, you might log on to my site and see that you are connected to someone on Facebook who is connected to someone on Twitter who I’m connect to on Linked In. Those intermediaries, who maybe are trying to maintain privacy of a sort by having separate social circles on different networks, are suddenly exposed. Like weddings where guests from different parts of the happy couple’s life collide, your connections may b your undoing. (Hmmm, so I wonder, are all these social tools going to start being deployed on prospective MPs I wonder? Prospctiv Parliamentary Candidate X is only two steps away from both a member of an dodgy looking group on Facebook and an ex porn star, for example… MPs expenses could be as if nothing compared to the sorts of selective storytelling you might be abl to turn up as a result of friend of a friend connections. Think Twiangulate, but working over multiple servics (as Mashed In might do?), court records, local news searches, gossip sites, company directorships, etc etc… Nightmare…
PPPPS Not to self – do a post on this… Reidentification Using Social Networks (i.e. deanonymisation); for sample History attack code, see SocialHistory.js: See Which Sites Your Users Visit]