For years I’ve been using the same username for many websites but with different passwords. I did it for convenience but I also had this vague idea that I was crafting some kind of an overall online identity which would be uniquely identifiable as me, would be consistent over time and would serve as an informal history to build my technical reputation and credibility. But now that I see the results I don’t like it even though there are not any individual postings or fragments of data that I’m ashamed of or embarrassed about. It’s just that when I see them all together the effect is unsettling and feels like I’ve been under surveillance all these years.
In some cases I made either bad choices or misinformed decisions. For example, by way of Googling my name recently, I found my work phone number in the web archives of a members only listserv for people in my industry. I recall making the decision to put my phone number in my email signature because I was posting specific information that I thought would help guys doing my same job in other organizations. There are few enough of us that I figured I’d be happy to help if one of them were to call me to ask for more details or advice. The problem is that, while I knew that registered members (i.e., people in my industry) would be able to search the archives, I had no idea that the thread was going to end up on Google. That was just simple misinformed decision. But my initial settings on my Twitter.com account turned out to be a case of making a genuinely bad decision, then forgetting all about it.
Earlier this week Google unveiled the new Street View feature on Google Maps. Street View takes the mapping service to a whole new level. Where previously we were awed by the detail of the aerial photography overlaid on Google’s mapping system, now users can zoom down to street level to see exactly what’s happening in any given neighborhood. It’s all there in Google Street View — every car, every pedestrian, every stray tabby.
Not surprisingly, the feature has met with mixed reviews. While most people are appropriately impressed by the technology, more than a few people are concerned by the privacy implications. Yesterday Boing Boing kept tabs on all of the interesting discoveries bloggers were able to find in just the first day of the Street View’s availability. There was a crazy lady concerned that her cat had been photographed, a guy walking out of a strip club on O’Farrel Street, and loads of innocent bystanders who just happened to be out walking around the day the Google van rolled through their neighborhood.
Predictably, “concerned citizens” are crawling out of the woodwork complaining that Google is on the verge of becoming Big Brother. Some fear that Google has access to too much information. I say that’s Nonsense. If anything, Google doesn’t have access to enough information. In the near future, when Google has access to ALL data, we’ll finally see some really innovative applications and services.
Yesterday I wrote about what we’ve learned from the recent AOL data leak. By now you’re probably aware that the risks to your personal data online can be rather significant. If you value your privacy you’ll want to take precautions to protect yourself online. Here are a few things you can do to minimize the damage the next time a major data spill occurs:
It’s been just over a week since we learned that AOL inadvertently released three months worth of search history for 670,000 users. While the furor has died down slightly, it seems likely that we’ll be hearing about this issue for quite some time. So much data was revealed that it could take a while before we fully understand the implications, and just how much damage may be inflicted on individual users. As scandals go, this one shows no sign of going away any time soon.
Early reaction to the news has been surprisingly varied. Data researchers were initially gleeful at the opportunity to work with extremely large data sets generated in a real-world environment. Privacy advocates were outraged and pointed out that while the data was anonymized, the search queries themselves can be used to identify users. Meanwhile, a large portion of the blogosphere has become fascinated with user 17556639 and his apparent plans to kill his wife. It’s entirely possible that law enforcement may be searching the logs for possible signs of criminal activity.