Time to Get Scared, People?

Last week, I posted a couple of tweets (via http://twitter.com/psychemedia) that were essentially doodles around the edge of what services like Google can work out about you from your online activity.

As ever in these matters, I picked on AJCann in the tweets, partly because he evangelises social web tool use to his students;-)

So what did I look at?

  • the Google Social Graph API – a service that tries to mine your social connections from public ‘friendships’ on the web. Check out the demo services…

    For example, here’s what the Google social API can find from Alan’s Friendfeed account using the “My Connections” demo:

    • people he links to on twitter and flickr;
    • people who link to him as a contact on twitter, delicious, friendfeed and flickr;
    • a link picked up from Science of the Invisible (which happens to be one of Alan’s blogs), also picks out his identi.ca identity; adding that URL to the Social Graph API form pulls out more contacts – via foaf records – from Alan’s identi.ca profile;

    The “Site Connections” demo pulls out all sorts of info about an individual by looking at URLs prominently associated with them, such as a personal blog:

    The possible connections reveal Alan’s possible identity on Technorati, Twitter, identi.ca, friendfeed, swurl, seesmic and mybloglog.

  • For anyone who doesn’t know what Alan looks like, you can always do a “face” search on Google images;
  • increasingly, there are “people” search engines out there that are built solely for searching for people. One example is Spock (other examples include pipl, zoominfo and wink [and 123people, which offers and interesting federated search results page]). The Spock “deep web” search turns up links that potentially point to Alan’s friendfeed and twitter pages, his revver videos, slideshare account and so on;
  • Alan seems to be pretty consistent in the username he uses on different sites. This makes it easy to guess his account on different sites, of course – or use a service like User Name Check to do a quick search;

Now I wasn’t going to post anything about this, but today I saw the following on Google Blogoscoped: Search Google Profiles, which describes a new Google search feature. (Didn’t know you had a Google Profile? If you have a Google account, you probably do – http://www.google.com/s2/profiles/me/? And if you want to really scare yourself with what your Google account can do to you, check http://www.google.com/history/… go on, I dare you…)

I had a quick look to see if I could find a link for the new profile search on my profile page, but didn’t spot one, although it’s easy enough to find the search form here: http://www.google.com/s2/profiles. (Maybe I don’t get a link because my profile isn’t public?)

Anyway, while looking over my profile, I thought I’d add my blog URL (http://ouseful.info) to it – and as soon as I clicked enter, got this:

A set of links that I might want to add to my profile – taken in part from the Social Graph API, maybe? Over the next 6 months I could see Google providing a de facto social network aggregation site, just from re-posting to you what they know about your social connections from mining the data they’ve crawled, and linking some of it together…

And given that the Goog can learn a lot about you by virtue of crawling public pages that are already out there, how much more comprehensive will your profile on Google be (and how certain will it be in the profile it can automatically generate around you?) if you actually feed it yourself? (Bear in mind things like health care records exist already…)

PS I just had a look at my own Web History page on Google, and it seems like they’ve recently added some new features, such as “popular searches related to my searches”, and also something on search trends that I don’t fully (or even partially) understand? Or maybe they were already there and I’ve not noticed before/forgotten (I rarely look at my search history…)

PPS does the web know when your birthday is??? Bewar of “Happy Birthday me…”. See also My Web Birthday.

[Have you heard about Google’s ‘social circle’ technology yet? read more]

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

13 thoughts on “Time to Get Scared, People?”

  1. Although at UoL we still don’t formally address the issue of online identity management as explicitly as we probably should, I’ve been telling students this year that it’s in their interest to manage their public professional profile by:

    a) Using a consistent professional username across multiple networks.
    b) Thinking very carefully about how they portray themselves online. In the Googleverse, information never dies.
    c) If they still want to post dodgy information about themselves, burying it deep under munged identities (one for each network to trip up the Google monster)

    For me, the benefits of being open still outweigh the potential disadvantages. Nevertheless, posts like this are scary and at some point in the future I may have to rethink my public ID policies (which have already been through several previous incarnations). 23andme anyone?

  2. I’ve been worrying about this sort of thing for a while (a couple of years, in fact – http://www.offmessage.com/2006/06/stalking-the-social-revolution/), but Google’s arrival on the scene takes it from an idle mashup to a whole new level.

    It’s hard to know how long we should continue to believe the ‘not evil’ mission statement, to be honest. I’m uncomfortable with any organisation aggregating that much information about me, even if I actively want to take part in all these services. Knowledge is power, and power corrupts (as they say).

    In general we’re going to have to carefully reappraise how we treat personal information in the next few years; not only what we put online, but how we treat what we find out about colleagues and friends. Question is, are we genuinely going to be able to overlook those facebook party photos when investigating a potential candidate for promotion?

  3. Hi Tony

    Scary stuff indeed . . . thanks for the post and it’s something that more people should be aware of. Like Andy I’m wary of organizations knowing that much about my online activities -but then again is it just a change of mindset. I happily let Tesco profile my shopping habits . . . but I get money back from them for doing that.


  4. The best free people search engine on the web. People search is in gigantic demand right now (30% of all searches on Google & Yahoo are people search related, and that number is growing) because in this day and age we’re trying to protect ourselves and our children as much as we can from predators and other nefarious people–and as employers, it is now possible to use the Internet to weed out prospective employees who will not be good for your company.

  5. See also:
    “Project ‘Gaydar’: At MIT, an experiment identifies which students are gay, raising new questions about online privacy” [ http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/09/20/project_gaydar_an_mit_experiment_raises_new_questions_about_online_privacy/?page=full ]

    “Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public. Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are”

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