Things are getting stirred up at the Federal Trade Commission. Pamela Jones Harbour an outgoing Federal Trade Commissioner had a few things to say about Google in a series of three FTC privacy roundtables held this month. Harbour who is scheduled to leave the agency in April, delivered remarks that had some choice words for the Internet giant. Calling the company’s decision to transform our private Gmail address books into public social networks, “foolish.” Adding that the way Google handled the “Buzz” roll-out was “irresponsible.” and says, “Google constantly tells the public to ‘trust us,’ but based on my observations, I do not believe consumer privacy played any significant role in the release of Buzz….. When Gmail users created their accounts, thy signed up for e-mail services, and their expectations did not include social networking.”
For many people who value their privacy, this could be a huge deal. We the people often dole out all kinds of personal information on the Internet that allows identifying your name, your email address, even Social Security number. What many people may not know is that studies show that the typical citizen or consumer is identified far beyond the norm of personal digits, and may be hitting more home personally than ever before.
With services like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr are oceans of personal data e.g. birthdays, photos, videos, and personal gossip. Computer scientists and experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, and that includes obtaining ones Social Security number.
“Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it”
It turns out that in a class project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that received some attention last year, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree analyzed more than 4,000 Facebook profiles of students, including links to friends. The pair was able to predict, with 78 percent accuracy, whether a profile belonged to a gay male.
Other companies such as Netflix awarded $1 million to a team of statisticians and computer scientists who won a three-year contest to analyze the movie rental history of 500,000 subscribers and improve on predictive accuracy of Netfilx’s recommendation software by at least 10 percent, according to recent article in The New York Times. But have recently shelved the project amidst F.T.C. concerns.
“Personal privacy is no longer an individual thing,” said Harold Abelson, the computer science professor as M.I.T. “In today’s online world, what your mother told you is true, only more so: people really can judge you by your friends.” Collected together, the pool of information about each individual can form a distinctive “social signature,” researchers say.
Both Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas, and Arvind Narayanan, now a researcher at Stanford University were able to identify more than 30 percent of the users of both Twitter and Flickr, even though the accounts had been stripped of identifying information like account names and e-mail addresses. Shmatikov says “when you link these large data sets together, a small slice of our behavior and the structure of our social networks can be identifying.”
To make matters even worse, two researchers from Canegie Mellon University published a paper last year reporting that they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent pf people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003 – amounting to nearly five million individuals.