What the Web knows about you

My 20-year-old neighbor likes to get wasted at parties. Recently, a friend took his picture, intoxicated, at a party. I know where he was and when the party occured. Why do I know this? During a general Google search that I would have thought was completely unrelated to him, his MySpace page came up as one of the top results. Right up front was a photo of him, intoxicated, with the caption "me, wasted." That image may go over with his friends, but might be less well received by customers of the family business where he's been working.

How you react to the story this week, What the Web Knows About You, depends on who you are.

If you're a baby boomer like me, you might be shocked to learn just how much personal information I was able to discover about myself with just a bit of digging. If you're in your '20s, however, you probably don't worry so much. Among the generation that grew up on the Internet, many are used to keeping their lives an open book on the Web. Expectations are different.

Openness can be a good thing. The world of "free" services on the Web is being squeezed with the impact of the econonic downturn and the fact that advertisers that support this business model don't get very good click-through rates on many sites. Micro-targeting of advertising messages could allow users to receive offers that are highly relevant to their personal situation, improve click-through rates for advertisers and perhaps provide a revenue model to support the "free" Web and keep it from potentially collapsing.

From that perspective it's a win-win. But are users giving up too much? People detail their lives on social networking sites, twitter their whereabouts each day and fill out 400-question psychological questionnaires on online dating sites without much thought as to who might be using the information, for what purposes, and how long it will persist. The problem with what's on the Web today is that the user is not in control of most of it. But an increasingly large amount of personal data is self-contributed, and that can be controlled.

Private investigator Steve Rambam is personally shocked - and professionally pleased - at the extraordinary amount of data people divulge about themselves online. "If you look at what most people self contribute - or worse, what their friends contribute about them - that's far, far more comprehensive than what's in the private databases," he says. And he makes a living collecting it for his clients.

The problem for people like my neighbor, Rambam says, is that information, once posted, never really disappears. Everything is indexed, copied, replicated or sucked into marketeting databases that scrape the Web for personal data. "Every drunken photo in Cancun that you put up, every ranting political posting that you put up, every outrageous comment, everything is now there for eternity," he says.

Rambam likes to say that privacy is dead. But he doesn't like it. "I still cringe when we do a prelminary investigation on a target and that person has posted strange sexual practices on the Internet." But he admits that his views aren't universally shared. "I'm old school. But the young people who work for me think that this is perfectly normal."

Ironically while 18 to 24 year olds may divulge more about themselves online, they're also the most agressive in responding when others abuse that data. According to the Javelin Research 2008 Identity Fraud Survey Report, victims ages 18 to 24 were far more likely to file a police report - and were nearly three times more likely to pursue prosecution - than other age groups.

That's an interesting paradox.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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