Sunday, May 30, 2010

Too Much Information: What Google And Facebook Know About You

Regulators and ordinary web users are in revolt over what they see as intrusion by Google, Facebook and others into their private lives. But is it their fault or ours that there’s so much data about us online? And does it really matter?

IN 1993, JUST as the internet was becoming a publicly available phenomenon rather than the tool (and plaything) of academics, researchers and technology company employees, the New Yorker magazine ran a droll, and soon to be famous, cartoon.

In the single panel, a small dog sits at a desk before a PC, looking down to chat with a cat. “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” he confides. The joke and the zeitgeist then was that the internet as a medium enabled users to be anonymous. Online you could be anyone you wished. Or you could be you. Identity was fluid and vague.

Now a more appropriate caption to the same cartoon would be: “On the internet, everyone knows that I am Spot, a neutered male labrador microchipped with number D19476, living with the Murphys at 42 O’Connell Place; that I eat 1.5 tins of Chum daily, purchased from Tesco; that I am not yet fully housetrained and have a habit of chasing the neighbour’s ginger cat. And I love kids, and a Bonio at bedtime.”

In other words we are far more aware – and increasingly concerned and paranoid – that we are swimming in an ocean of personal data and detail scattered online, not all of it placed there with our consent or knowledge.

When we do place it there ourselves it is typically without giving a second thought to what we have posted, who might view it and how it might be used by others. And according to repeat surveys we also almost never consider that our friends and colleagues might post information and pictures of us online – maybe having drunk too much at a party, or being somewhere we weren’t supposed to be.

But we are getting wiser. We are discovering that our personal data is of great interest to online companies, a point driven home repeatedly in this week’s news stories about Facebook (forced by annoyed users to hastily improve privacy settings), Google, Microsoft and Yahoo (under fire again from the EU for retaining too much data about users and their searches), Google again (from Germany, for its Street View cameras taking pictures without people knowing it; and for Street View’s collecting information on people’s home and business wireless networks) and online companies generally (as the UK’s Office of Fair Trade begins to investigate companies gathering personal data for targeted advertising)...

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