The Online Privacy Dichotomy

I recently discovered a fantastic website/application called pinterest after reading a news articles about how one of it users has received acclaim simplyby using the application. This piqued my interest and when I went to sign up, I found that whilst free, membership was by invitation only. The application process was simple enough though – supply an email and someone will get back to you with an invitation. I supplied my Yahoo email account which I use deliberately to separate my personal & business identity from my online identity. Its not that they identify me differently – they are both me, its just that they both used for different purposes and have no formal association between each other.

Upon being invited to join, I found there were only 2 ways to login – via Facebook account or via Twitter account…of which I have neither.

Its not that I am against Facebook. In fact I often sneak onto my wif’e's account every now and then to see what our friends are up to, however it’s also an opportunity to examine the sort of information my wife is unknowingly putting online that put’s our personal security and privacy in jeopardy. For example, I don’t mind if my wife has a post that says “Exhausted after a busy week visiting Nan & Pop on the farm”, but I’ll crack it whenever she posts “Can’t wait until Friday when we fly up to the Farm for a week of shearing”. That’s right – just tell the world that for a week from Friday, there will be no-one at home; invite every burglar within 1000 kilometres to come and have a crack at our Lockwood security system and take whatever you can get your hands on! Thank God for good neighbours.

But that aside, having worked in IT and heard a lot of stories, many first hand about breaches of privacy & security via online identity theft and hacking, I understand the associated risks and tend to steer clear of online sites that ask for too many personal details, or store sensitive data like credit card details which are no safer in their encrypted database than they would be printed clearly within this blog.

So, back to Pinterest. Clearly I’m not about to create a Facebook account just to log into this website and have a sniff around. Twitter was a pretty easy decision as I have often thought about the value in using a tool like twitter to broadcast to my personal and professional network about new blogs or interesting discoveries I have made.

Signing up to Twitter was pretty straight forward. For anyone else that’s done it before, all they ask for is a Full name, Email and a password. You then get to search for and create a unique Twitter Tag and meanwhile, they send you a confirmation email. Once you have clicked the link in the confirmation email, you are live. Simple. Fast. Efficient. This is how signing up should be.

So I now have a twitter account (#mtwebdev if you are interested in following me)  and I went through the tutorial to figure it all out. The first thing it does is ask you to follow 8 people (I later realised you can skip this) and then I was confronted with one of those “Oh my god” moments – and I don’t mean the excited type – try the goosebumps, hair standing up on the back of my neck type!

This could not be coincidence or fate. The chances would have to be one in a hundred million. Of the more than 200 million twitter accounts, there in the top 20 suggested people to follow are two guys I play soccer with every week. I’ve barely known these guys  3 months! I get a group email once a week sent to my Yahoo account asking who is free to play soccer each week that is also addressed to  these guys. That is the total extent of our online relationship – a single weekly email that we both appear on…and somehow Twitter has managed to mine that seemingly miniscule association from what I believed to be a private communication stream and concluded that these two guys must be someone I know!

I don’t even know how or where this information was gleaned from! I didn’t provide Twitter with my yahoo password – I don’t even have these guys in my Yahoo address book, or any address book for that matter. They reside in the emails in my inbox. The only possibility I can think of is maybe my iPhone (which I use to access my Yahoo account) is sharing more than I was aware.

It’s not really such a great leap given what we already know about some of the privacy pitfalls with the iPhone and the data it collects. Perhaps somewhere in the fine print, Apple is sharing more than we realise with their partners and goodness knows who else?

It really surprised me just how little it takes for a company to know so much about me before I even become a customer. You don’t have to go far back to consider the recent article about a US father who discovered that Target knew his daughter was pregnant before he did based on patterns of seemingly unrelated purchases like zinc & magnesium supplements, unscented lotions and over-sized hand bags.

Even if its not about Big Brother watching us, we certainly need to sit up and pay attention about just what we are sharing online, otherwise you’ll soon discover that the privacy debate was lost long before you got to the table.


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