June 28, 2006


Writing about web page http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19025556.200?DCMP=NLC-nletter&nsref=mg19025556.200

Thank you to Duncan for sending me a link to the above article.

The internet is a fantastic tool: I myself would feel significantly at a loss without it. It allows you immediate access to a wealth of information, allows instant communication across the globe and transfer of data and ideas.

The advantages for scientists, for instance, could be huge: they will have unprecedented access to each other's experimental datasets and will be able to perform their own analyses on them. Searching for products such as holidays will become easier as price and availability dates will have smart tags, allowing powerful searches across hundreds of sites.

However, a comment was posted on my recent entry suggesting that certain contributors might want to restrict the things they mentioned in a public forum. Whilst I have no problem with people contrubuting in whatever way they like to my blog, I do worry that sometimes we may reveal too much. Several times I have read surprised entries from students who have discovered that their parents read their blogs.

"I AM continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves." So says Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP, a Silicon Valley–based maker of encryption software. He is far from alone in noticing that fast–growing social networking websites such as MySpace and Friendster are a snoop's dream … "You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé. People don't realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days"
New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code–breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks. And it could harness advances in internet technology – specifically the forthcoming "semantic web" championed by the web standards organisation W3C – to combine data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all–embracing personal profiles of individuals.

There are examples of people who have been sacked from their jobs for revealing details of excessive drinking and drug–taking, and some who have been barred from religious colleges after revealing their homosexuality.

Why do bloggers so readily reveal such information online? Do we really consider the potential readership? Should we be more worried about the information employers and even governments can gather? Did the people mentioned above deserve their dismissal or should their treatment have been more lenient?

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. I saw that article the other day (yay for New Scientist, love it to bits). It was quite a scary article in some respects, and highlights a previously unmentioned side effect of Web 2.0 (the next version of the web built by sites like MySpace, Facebook, and technologies to create relationships across sites, referenced in the final quotation as the 'semantic web'), and whether the benefits out–weigh the risks. I believe they do, and in the spirit of the internet, it is up to the publisher how much information to provide given the possible uses of the information.

    However, as you say, it does raise an interesting question regarding the publication of information online. Personally, I think it's wrong that things you publish on your blog are considered as part of the interview process, but equally, I didn't really see the attraction of sharing my life with the world until about a year ago, and to some extent still don't. I guess this is partly why my blog rarely gets updated.

    There was a case involving 192.com a few years ago, an online directory enquiries service that would provide a large amount of information for free and a positively colossal amount of data for a nominal charge, with sources of the data including the Electoral Roll amongst other things. This was obviously abused by, amongst other people, stalkers, and as a result 192.com and later similar sites (including BT and the Royal Mail) started limiting the number of searches possible in a 24–hour period (192.com now uses a credit system and requires users to be registered to retrieve information). Linking back to the first paragraph, whilst it is ultimately the responsibility of the blogger to decide what (s)he feels suitable, is it not partly the responsibility of the site owners to ensure the data cannot be misused?

    I guess this comes a bit unstuck in the case of government agencies, but in the case of the NSA (America's equivalent of Britain's "ultra–secret" Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ) I think simple controls, such as those implemented by Warwick Blogs, to restrict who can view certain posts will suffice. You never hear of the intelligence services demanding records from companies (cf. Yahoo! handing over email records of a pro–democracy campaigner to Chinese Police; article at http://tinyurl.com/gukbs, but that is probably because they can get the information undetected, or some other way. Who knows?

    Apologies for the slightly rambling comment; I'm still not quite awake yet :(

    29 Jun 2006, 10:34

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