Mike Elgan: How Buzz, Facebook and Twitter create 'social insecurity'

Will using Buzz raise your premiums? Welcome to the weird new world of zero privacy

An insurance expert told the Britain's Telegraph newspaper that using location-centric mobile social services like Google Buzz, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare could raise your home insurance premiums, or even result in the denial of insurance claims.

Wait, what?

A gag Web site launched this week called "Please Rob Me" raised an ugly but obvious truth about location-based mobile social networking: When you tell the public where you are, you're also telling burglars you're not at home. The site originally displayed a real-time stream of Twitter and Foursquare posts that might interest criminals.

Twitter has since pulled the plug, apparently, and now all Please Rob Me posts are from Foursquare. Each post begins with the user's name, followed by "left home and checked in" followed by an exact address of where the person is.

Insurance industry watchers like the one quoted by the Telegraph predict that after customers get burglarized and file claims on stolen property, the insurance companies will probably investigate to see whether the customer broadcast information over social networks in a way that constitutes "negligence." They could also make "social networker" the homeowners insurance equivalent of "chain smoker" in health insurance -- a category of customers who are charged higher premiums.

In my "Inside Google" blog yesterday, I wrote a detailed post titled "How to rob somebody using Google Buzz." My point was that even though Twitter and Foursquare can expose users to crimes, Google Buzz is even more compromising.

In a nutshell, using Google Buzz's mobile location feature, in combination with Google Profiles and other free Internet-based services, crooks can quickly find out who you are, where you are, what you look like, where you live, and when you'll be home. Scam artists can troll for suckers, then grab all the information they need for their scam.

This is bad news for Google in the wake of its already problematic Buzz rollout. When Buzz first hit, users were automatically "followed" to a list of people they e-mailed most often. Unless users were savvy enough to change the privacy settings on Google Profiles, which most Gmail users probably didn't even know existed, their lists of most-frequent contacts was made public. Doctors and lawyers had patients' and clients' identities revealed. Personal contacts were exposed to employers. Mistakes were made. Google apologized and fixed the problem, but not in time to stop a class-action lawsuit.

It's easy to pick on Google, because its services are so popular and because Buzz is so new. But the truth is that Buzz is just one small part of the new "social insecurity." We've innovated our way into a strange new world of privacy compromise and confusion.

Why you can't know how much privacy you have

We now live in a world of online services where privacy is often violated by default.

To understand this and do something about it, you need to be an exceptional person. The average user or consumer can't or won't figure out how to safeguard his privacy.

A minimal safeguarding on personal privacy nowadays requires users to take intelligent action regarding deeply buried, little discussed, often confusing and relatively obscure settings in Facebook, Gmail, Profiles, Twitter and a world of other online social services -- and most of all one's own cell phone.

Are your Facebook photos set up to be public or private? When you post pictures of your kids or spouse on Facebook, are those pictures made available on image search sites? Are creepy weirdos finding those pictures using Google, Bing or Yahoo image search and then reposting them on creepy weirdo Web sites?

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