Monday, January 19, 2009

Show me your online lifestream and I will tell you who you are

An obscure French periodical recently published a piece about Marc L*** which to their feigned dismay has been widely picked up by the mainstream media. (They say they are surprised that the media are more interested in Marc than they are in the article they published in the same issue about the fate of twelve million European Rrom).

The author of the article chose some poor guy at random via his Flickr photstream and made him the subject of what he calls a Google portrait. He culled as much information as possible from the photos about what Marc looks like, his string of relationships, his trips for work and for pleasure, what he does at the weekend etc. From there, he followed him to Facebook and made a friend request. Not everyone realises that if somebody makes a friend request on Facebook and you respond to it —which is exactly what the unsuspecting Marc did — the requestor gains access to your profile for the next month. Bingo: the hack could now find out all about his job (just outside Bordeaux as it happens), his nights out, his friends. He even got Marc's address and his mobile phone number and checked it out. Then he looked him up in the archives of the local newpaper and found out about his past life as a guitarist in a punk band.

The point of the article seems to be to show just how much of an ordinary person's biography can be pieced together from the information that person voluntarily offers up on social networking sites and how much more cogent the information given out sparingly here and there becomes when it is all brought together and synthesised. And don't forget this is a guy who is only on Flickr and Facebook - think of how much more could be found out about the rest of us who blog and twitter and and generally sprawl out comfortably across the internets.

The next step is presumably to wonder about what somebody malicious might do with that information. Well, they might write a two page biography of you and publish it in a magazine I suppose, then act surprised when you discover the article and immediately ask for all the names to be changed. "You only have yourself to blame, Marc", the journalist protests at the beginning of the article, "you should have been more careful".

I think I'm relatively careful about the information I bandy about when it's related to other people. You can only see photographs of people's faces on my Flickr photostream if I consider you a friend, I don't usually use real names on this blog and just how harmful can it be for Big Bro to know that I used to watch Blue Peter and what I had for dinner. I do run my mouth off frequently on Twitter though - and I think I might protect my updates there (although Gordon reckons Twitter has jumped the shark, so maybe we'll all be stopping that soon anyway).

Ultimately, it's a choice freely made. We choose to leave traces of who we are here and there but we're not so naïve that we don't realise that if anyone was interested enought to piece it all together they'd get quite a big bit of the picture. But so what? In any case, I'll bet I know an awful lot more about people I only have a passing acquaintance with at work, in my street, at my kids' school, than I do about random people on t'internet.


Princesse Ecossaise said...

Woa that is scary and really worrying. I am pretty careful about what I put out on the internet nowadays, but I did start using the net when I was very young (about 12) and very niaive and I have no idea what might be out there, that I maybe wrote at 12 years of age.

Man, it's really scary to think about...

Le laquet said...

That's worrying ~ has Marc responded to the magazine do you know?

Lesley said...

Princesse: So they could probably trace all your teenage boyfriends.

Le laquet: Apparently he was horrified and immediately closed his Flickr and Facebook accounts then demanded that they change all of the names of people and places. The names have been changed in the online version but obviously not in the print version.

beaverboosh said...

Interesting piece! I will not share or publish personal information about myself or family anywhere after living in London for many years! It is unfortunate, but anyone who choses, can perpetrate theft, fraud, and emotional damage! Norway is an interesting place. Your tax (salary) details are available online for everyone to see, and you cannot chose to be ex-directory! Most anglo-saxons find this invasive and infringement of your personal rights.

Lesley said...

beaverboosh: Do you think identity theft is more common in London than elsewhere? Probably one of those things you never worry about until it happens to you or someone you know.