As social networking sites (SNSs) increasingly dominate online life, fewer people anonymously post their comments on sites like Yahoo discussion groups or in blog commentary sections. Instead, they now freely post their opinions, personal information and even embarrassing photos on sites like Facebook and Twitter — using their real names.
Not surprisingly, some companies are using this explosion in the availability of free online personal information to create and sell detailed, individual personal profiles, using aggregated data from online networking and public-records sites. The trend worries some analysts, who warn that all this openness could potentially eradicate the concept of personal online privacy.
Some privacy advocates are trying to fight back against data aggregators. This summer, for example, a class-action lawsuit was filed in California against the Website Spokeo, which assembles and sells detailed profiles from online searches of public records. The suit claims much of the information is false or misleading because Spokeo relies on some sources that only aggregate data for whole neighborhoods, such as databases of home values, for example. The Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology, which advocates for Internet freedom, has also complained to the Federal Trade Commission about misleading and inaccurate Spokeo data.
For its part, Spokeo says all the data it posts “is aggregated from public sources,” and thus is fair game. Nevertheless, the company is working on a “ground-breaking” plan to “offer users some measure of control over the public information that is published about them.”
However, Christopher Peterson, a social-media writer and analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), warns that new technology is poised to further enhance data-aggregation capabilities. Face-recognition software for both video and still photos is improving quickly, he says. Software like Polar Rose.com and Google's Picasa soon will be able to search online for photos, such as those posted and “tagged” with the person's name on Facebook or the photo-sharing site Flickr. Then the software can find more pictures of those same people elsewhere on the Internet.
“You could be at a bar having your photo taken without explicit consent, because you're in the background and the person taking it is a stranger,” yet if the image is posted online a Web application could scan it, identify you by matching the photo to photos online already tagged with your name and tag this photo as well.
“So if you were doing jello shots at the time, your boss or your grandmother” could find the photo in an Internet search, even though you may not even be aware of its existence, says Peterson. The danger that someone will use such technologies to assemble databases of compromising information about people “is the flip side of all the great aspects of having user-generated content” online.
Contrary to what many believe, young people are just as concerned about privacy as adults. “It's just that their notions of privacy look very different than adult notions,” said Danah Boyd, a social-media researcher at the Cambridge, Mass.-based corporate laboratory Microsoft Research New England. “As adults, we think of the home as a very private space,” but “for young people it's not. They have no control over who comes in and out of their room, or … their house. As a result, the online world feels more private because it feels like [they have] more control.”
Some groups are resisting efforts to eliminate online anonymity. In the multiplayer online gaming community this past summer, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based game developer Activision Blizzard, which created the popular “Starcraft” and “World of Warcraft” games, announced that its game-discussion forums would abandon the long-held tradition of posting under pseudonyms, usually using an avatar representing the fictional character the player portrays in the game. The move would reduce spam and trash talk on discussion boards, the company said, by revealing posters' real-life identities in the new model embraced by SNSs like Facebook.
The company's idea was that “people will police themselves when their real-life reputations are on the line,” says MIT's Peterson, who is on the board of the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Gamers and privacy advocates, however, immediately countered that there are many reasons to continue allowing pseudonyms. “In-game competitions can get heated, and relationships between players sometimes go sour. Does Blizzard really want players' in-game names to be associated with their users' real names in a public and searchable fashion, making it that much easier to take in-game drama into the real world?” asked Sean Brooks, a program associate in the San Francisco office of the Center for Democracy & Technology. And forum posts with real names attached would make players' gaming habits searchable by potential employers, said critics. Players “may not want to share their gaming habits,” Brooks pointed out.
Inundated by protests, Blizzard rescinded its plans the next day.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says the trend toward more online sharing of personal information will benefit all. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg contends the trend toward more and more online sharing of real-life information will turn out to be good for everyone. “When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was, ‘Why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all?’” But then in the last five or six years, he says, “blogging has taken off … and just all these different services that have people sharing all this information.”
Zuckerberg “is not bullshitting here,” said business journalist David Kirkpatrick, author of the 2010 book The Facebook Effect. “He believes that he is operating Facebook in order to give his users a service that helps them live their lives differently, in a way he calls ‘more open and connected.’”
And with more than half a billion members, Facebook's policies are a key driver of how the entire online world develops, he added. So the anti-anonymity philosophy of Zuckerberg, who is not only CEO but controls three out of five seats on Facebook's board of governors, is likely to prevail, Kirkpatrick said.
— Marcia Clemmitt