James Smith

Online privacy is not something that has overly concerned me on my internet travels, but there are many people who are vocal about protecting information online. I have been of the opinion that there shouldn’t be a problem with this information being available unless people have something to hide. More recently though, there have been a large number of articles about information being used in new and interesting ways which have led me to think differently about what I say and do online.

I read an interesting article today about the CEO of a company called Plazes being caught out by his own location tracking product after skipping a conference. Just a few hours later, Mashable covered a story about interesting pictures captured by Google’s Street View cameras, including sunbathing girls, strip club patrons and a guy picking his nose on a bench. These articles got me thinking about all the information being constantly fed onto the web, and how things which are seemingly innocent, such as street photography and letting people know what you are up to could get you in trouble.

Mashable’s article raised an interesting point:

It won’t be long until people start identifying protected witnesses or spotting domestic violence and who knows what else.

I’m sure there are many more examples, and it isn’t just Street View and Plazes which are collating this sort of information.

As a fan of social networking and microblogging I’m feeding more and more information to services like Facebook and Twitter, meaning that more people have access to details of what I’m doing than ever before. At this time we make this sort of information available it might seem like a trivial thing to do, but often this information is archived and stored for the future, meaning, in theory, someone could build a profile of your habits and activities.

When a user chooses to release this information to friends and contacts, there are normally clear controls on who can see what. When it comes to information outside of the user’s control, such as the public domain images captured by Google’s Street View, there isn’t much that a user can do about it, and this capturing and hoarding of public domain information is surely to increase.

A couple of years ago when Facebook and MySpace were starting to make it big in my area, I began hearing stories about job interviewers who would mention to interviewees that they had read the interviewee’s Facebook profiles, there were even rumours of this being used as the basis for refusing employment. If you ask around I’m sure you will find similar stories. Again, the user can choose who to make this information available to, and what to release, but there are often ways to get around these protections. For example, it is simple enough to use a friend’s account on a social networking site, such as Facebook, to view users’ profiles on a network other than your own.

It is now commonplace to Google people to get an idea of their reputation and links (although with a name like James Smith you get a certain level of automatic anonymity!) and the idea of doing this wouldn’t really sound too shocking to most people. Are people adjusting their ideas of acceptable privacy due to the changing volumes of available information?

Another possibility which could arise from this growing information craze, is that of social misinformation. It would be quite easy to set up accounts with social networking and microblogging sites and feed them with whatever information you choose to, meaning you could present yourself online as a different person to offline. Of course, this idea has been around for a long time, with stories of men posing as women on chat rooms etc since the dawn of the internet, but would it be now credible to create a persona and backstory online to manipulate people, such as in the job interview situation mentioned above? Imagine a situation where someone’s Twitter or Facebook status was used as an “alibi” to show where someone was. Clearly this could never be used in a legal situation, but maybe it would convince the boss that you were ill rather than at that party.

What do you think about this? Does anyone have any other examples of where information such as this has been used in an interesting way? Let me know by leaving a comment.

About the Author

James Smith, British entrepreneur and developer based in San Francisco.

I'm the co-founder of Bugsnag with Simon Maynard, and from 2009 to 2012 I led up the product team as CTO of Heyzap.