Is Privacy a Dirty Word in Social Networks? Every Day, We Share Information and Communicate with Others through Social Media. but How Many of Us Have Sat Down and Considered How Far That Information Goes, and How Much We Want to Share? JOHN HILL Reports

The Journal (Newcastle, England), July 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Is Privacy a Dirty Word in Social Networks? Every Day, We Share Information and Communicate with Others through Social Media. but How Many of Us Have Sat Down and Considered How Far That Information Goes, and How Much We Want to Share? JOHN HILL Reports


Byline: JOHN HILL

THIS morning, a friend of mine finally booked his holiday to Europe, while another wrestled with programming code. Across the country, someone was thwacked by the after-effects of a heavy Indian meal, while several were glued to the latest grime emerging from the News International hacking saga.

All of these people are growing up in a world in which sharing is fun; in which tossing out breadcrumbs of personal data allows them to get closer to others.

It's not uncommon now to hear people say that privacy is dead, but if you travel far enough, you'll always get to the wire fence at the edge of the open plain, beyond which everyone keeps information they'd rather not share. Of course, in some cases, that fence is rusted and broken, and you can wander through it without even ripping your trousers.

At this year's Thinking Digital, "geek comedian" Tom Scott demonstrated how relaxed some people have become with social media. People might not put their home address on their public profile, but they're more than happy in some cases to "check in" at home on Foursquare. They'll also go on to public Facebook groups to announce they've lost their phone and need people's numbers.

Scott created a simple automated program called Evil to demonstrate how widely this happens.

Evil goes into these groups, picks some at random, redacts them slightly and randomly flashes them up on the site. According to Scott, finding this information doesn't require expert skills. Type the right search term into a site like Openbook, for example, and you'll get a long list of numbers from people whose post to their friends has gone far further than they intended.

He says: "If you're aiming at a specific person, it can be difficult; but if you're just casting a wide net and seeing what you catch, then it's incredibly easy!

"It depends very much on the person. For a minority of people, you can put together most of their life; for a good fraction of the population, you can get an idea of what they're interested in and a few demographic details. For most people, you can't actually work out much at all - because they don't use social networks."

In many ways, the spread of social media has opened us up to the world. But while this 'oversharing' isn't some plague that will destroy us all, is there an element of complacency slipping into our relationship with social media? Scott says: "There isn't really a good way to compare. Before the web became widespread, there wasn't really much to be complacent about - you were either ex-directory or not, and most people made sure to opt out of companies passing their details on to "trusted third parties" for marketing. There simply wasn't any big, publicly accessible database of personal thoughts and details to be complacent about."

There are around 750m people on Facebook now, and more than 200m on Twitter. So while that's not a huge chunk of the world population, it's certainly a large chattering database of information.

We recognise the power of information, which is why it's still unnerving when people hack into systems like the PlayStation network or leave government laptops on the train. But how careful are we with our own information when it's ours to control? Oli Wood is the co-founder of Wedding Tales, a service which allows users to store their wedding photos on a secure online space and invite guests to upload their own.

He says: "People seem very willing to trade personal information for access to services. They don't often seem to mind that Facebook knows lots about them because they know which pub to go to on a Saturday. Of course, they're also reasonably uninformed about how far it can spread. "The BBC once built an app to see what information they could get in exchange for photos of pop stars. There's a view among some people that privacy is dead, and that you can't protect information because there's so much out there. …

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Is Privacy a Dirty Word in Social Networks? Every Day, We Share Information and Communicate with Others through Social Media. but How Many of Us Have Sat Down and Considered How Far That Information Goes, and How Much We Want to Share? JOHN HILL Reports
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