NEWS FROM THE LAB - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Facebook, Google and Privacy Posted by Sean @ 17:16 GMT

There's been a great deal of discussion (controversy?) recently regarding personal privacy and the pursuit of profit. Many pundits are concerned that businesses are putting personal data at risk for financial gains.

And so the question is being asked: Are Facebook and Google contributing to an erosion of personal privacy?

So let's take a look at that, shall we? If you want to find personal information about somebody, are you really dependent on Google? Or Facebook? Really? No… not really.

In fact, there's LOTS of personal information that's been available to academics and demographers for years.

For example, take the State of North Carolina, USA. The NC State Board of Elections website is a great place to start as it provides a form for checking *my* registration. And only two bits of data are required — first and last names.


Let's take a look at a public figure, Richard Burr. He's North Carolina's senior Senator.


Look what's available: his full name, voter registration number, registration date, address and race.

Let's see you get that info from Facebook. Not likely.

Now we know his home address is in Forsyth County, so let's visit the Forsyth County Tax Administration website and use their Geo-Data Explorer. It's super cool.

All you need the street address and presto, you get an aerial view with the property lines, the home value, property value, owners, et cetera.


Historical information is also available.

And check out this street view! Man, that beats Google's street view, hands down. No comparison at all. Google's an amateur.

Next, let's take a look at an online phone book, White Pages dot com.

Again, using very little information, just first name, last name, city and state, we get these results:


Richard Burr's work (local office) and home numbers.

And what else? Twitter? Really? Yep. The Burr's campaign Twitter feed is indexed in the White Pages.

There's tons of information on this guy, and on non-public figures as well. Resources such as this can be found all over the Internet.

Companies such as LexisNexis specialize in the collection and sale of data access and they started long before Sergey M. Brin, Lawrence E. Page and Mark Zuckerberg were even born.

So how exactly is Google and Facebook eroding privacy? Because they do in the open do what others do behind closed doors? Because they are trying to invent something new?

Guess that depends on what you consider privacy.

Governments have always known your personal details. Making some information public contributes to an open and healthy democracy. So many things aren't really private, are they? Someone, somewhere already knows plenty of things about you.

At least you get something, services, for using Google and Facebook. LexisNexis and others aren't going to give you a cent for your information.

And consider this, posting messages in online forums, commenting on blog posts and sharing links with your friends is kind of like having a private conversation in a public shopping mall. Sure, you can have a personal conversation at your local coffee shop, but do you really expect that conversation to be secure?

If somebody overhears your conversation, are you going to blame the shop owner for not protecting your personal information? No, of course not.

Facebook and Google are INTERNET services. Internet equals public space. Or at least, people should consider it to be so.

It's more accurate to say that information technologies are eroding the length of time that is required to access your data.

Yes, that does have an impact on our online and real-world lives. But should we panic about it?

Should we be pointing the finger at Facebook and Google saying that they're to blame because they are making business decisions? Don't think so, information technologies are going to continue to open up personal information regardless of whether or not Google and Facebook are trying to make a profit.

Do you want data and personal privacy protections? Then pass a law protecting personal privacy from being misused by employers. That's what people really care about — their jobs and their livelihood — not being marketed to.

Perhaps that's something Senator Burr will consider during his reelection campaign.