In today's society especially with respect to Generation Y and the iGeneration mobile devices have become a de facto standard in our every day lives to stay connected with the world 24/7 365 days. We live and breath our handy little mobile devices. Many of us reach for the beloved mobile device first thing in the morning before even greeting our loved ones or doing anything else of importance.
Mobile devices have truly become our means to stay connected within, some would argue, a disconnected society. Our grandparents and even our parents reminisce about the “good old days” when people still met in person and everyone greeted you on the street and, often, even knew your name. Now, many people do not even know their neighbour’s name, let alone, anyone they pass on the street. Yet, we are more connected today than we ever were. We can chat with friends from half around the world and see their status update in real time. We can mingle with like-minded people around the globe and engage in heated and lengthy discussions about topics of interest to us and even build long lasting friendships with people who we have never met in person. Indeed, more and more people meet their life partner on online dating sites instead of at work, clubs, bars, events, and various other “old school” venues.
This digital connectedness is fostered through sites such as facebook, reddit, myspace, youtube, qzone, twitter, flickr, grind, okcupid, lavalife, pof, fetlife, and hundreds and thousands of other social sites. Through this enormous amount of social networking and digital connectedness, it is no wonder that literally all mobile devices and applications are aimed at sharing and connecting the user to the net. In today’s age, most mobile devices are equipped with GPS, SMS, email, browsers, and social networking applications. Most applications and software, whether cloud or otherwise, are aimed at “sharing” and connecting the user to other platforms and the world. The reason for that is to increase efficiency, convenience, and, most importantly, to really help us to still live within a social environment even if we are locked up in a dark little room in front of a computer screen all day and night long.
We can share literally anything we want and, indeed, often share things we do not necessarily want to share. This then leads to the crux of the matter; all of these “connectedness” on a digital and networking basis does keep the user connected to the world, but at a price – erosion of privacy. The omnipresence of mobile devices and the myriad of applications have made it almost impossible for a user to remain private. The more plugged in we are through our mobile devices and computers, the higher the barrier to privacy becomes. The problem with sharing, in a digital age, is that once it is out there, it can promulgate and take a life of its own without our knowledge and there is not much we can do about it. Indeed, once it is out, it can’t be put back into the bag. A risqué picture of you, will, for all intents and purposes, stay out there in the digital sea for anyone to discover and, lo and behold, share.
The reason I decided to write this short article was a post I read on reddit about some self confessed stalker who had found a picture of a girl he had never met before. He found her to be attractive and then decided to see how much he can find out about her. His entire confession goes into detail what he did and how much he found out about her. It was eye opening to say the least. Suffice it to say, he found her address, phone number, name, college, dorm, class schedule, furniture in her room and house, license plate, and various other things. This then lead me to look into this matter in more detail. I have heard about how much information is out there about each and everyone of us, but I, must admit, it never really sunk in. I, for one, thought that I don’t post crazy stuff so what should I worry about? Also, I have my aliases for some sites so how can my privacy be compromised? Well, think again…
There are very few applications that are bucking the trend and that are specifically designed to lower the barrier to privacy and as such help us to keep some things of our life out of the public spotlight. Ask yourself, have you ever had a moment, after you hit the enter or send button, when you thought… “yikes, I should not have posted that” or have you ever wondered what google , your bank, your credit card company, your ISP, your government, or facebook does with all that private information that they collect? Have you ever wondered how much someone can find out about you by simply surfing the net and then piecing all of the snippets of information they find on various sites into one big information database? Well, if you have ever wondered there are various published reports that show how much one can find out about another person by simply finding a picture of them on, let’s say, a dating site, reddit, pinterest, or flickr. It is relatively easy, based on those reports, to then link that picture via, e.g., off the shelf facial recognition software with facebook or linked in etc. and then ascertain the real name of that person. Once they have the name, the sky is the limit and some reports have shown that they can even determine the person’s social security number by scouring the net and put the name and date of birth and a few other data sets made freely available by many online users. Feed the date in to known government algorithms and, voila, with some degree of certainty, your social insurance number is public. All of this just because of one digital picture of you.
Along the points raised above, therefore it is important to note that we are not the only ones who tune in to the connected wired or wireless society, but our employers, families, colleagues, clients, etc. all avail themselves of those social tools as well. And this is not “just” to stay connected, but to also “research” their friends, family members, employees, service providers. For example, many employers do check their employees’ and applicants’ social presence and make a determination about their employees and applicants based on their findings. There are numerous reports and stories on the net that describe in detail the consequences for employees because of risky postings by them. Gartner reports that by 2015, 60% of employers will monitor their employees’ facebook and twitter pages. Last, but certainly not least, unfortunately, predators and fraudsters are also using social networks to exploit all of the information available. One social networking problem that is seriously on the rise is identify theft of children. A proud parent posts a picture of his/her toddler with date of birth and even time of birth. The facebook page already shows the location and possibly the address of the parent and that is more than sufficient to start creating a new identity. Indeed, according to a report called Child Identity Theft by Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab, 10.2% of children are subject to online identity theft. That number is 51 times higher than the rate for adults which was a mere 0.2%. Among other things, social networking sites are a prime resource for fraudsters to find new identities to steal children identities. The fraudster will canvass the parent’s own social networking page and get pictures, date of birth, and location of the children or the fraudster will befriend children and solicit as much private information that they possibly can and then scour the net for more information about the child.
Looking at some social networking statistics published by pingdom, there are about 2.4 billion social network accounts and 300 billion photos are available just through social networking sites alone. About 20,000 pictures are posted on social networking sites every second. Retrevo reported in its recent Retrevo Gadgetology study, that 52% of users who are under the age of 25 regret having posted something on a social networking site. Once the over 25 are included the number decreases to 32%. With respect to mobile devices, iPhone users led the pack in regrets with 51% of iPhone users regretting having posted something on a social networking site. Android and BlackBerry users are at 43% and 45% respectively. The overall average of users regretting posting via their mobile device is 45%.
The biggest social networking site online – facebook - has about 901 million accounts according to the latest count published by PC Magazine and the facebook SEO filing. 219 billion photos are on facebook. 3,500 new photos are being posted on facebook every second and about 300 million new photos every day. About 100,000 facebook photos are accessible by an average facebook user. An article entitled “Information Revelation and Privacy Online Social Networks” by Ralph Gross and Allessandro Acquisti from Carnegie Mellon University, revealed that 90.8% of facebook user has 1 or more photo posted. 89% of facebook users are using their real name. 61% of facebook users have a picture posted that discloses some personal information for direct identification, e.g., standing next to their car with the license plate. 50.8% of facebook users have their address listed on their page. Almost 40% have their phone number posted. Finally, a vast majority of facebook users have not changed their privacy settings from the default settings.
Looking at those statistics and keeping in mind that someone with a little savviness can find out where you live and who you are from a simple photo without knowing anything else about you at the beginning, these numbers and this connectedness does start to sound a bit ominous and, let’s admit it, scary. Indeed, the President of the United States, Barrack Obama, recently openly voiced serious concerns about facebook and the danger it poses to minors. His wife, Michelle Obama, was reported to having said that even if her husband was not the President of the United States, she would still be concerned about her children hanging out in “Facebook’s ‘weird’ corridors”.
Bottom line is that it is important for all of our own safety and security to be cognizant of how much information we inadvertently disclose to the world when we interact and engage in social networking. A simple picture, as the saying goes, tells a thousand words, has become even more true in today’s digital age.
Therefore, be careful when you post pictures or anything else, assume, as a fact, that it will be in the world’s or a stalker’s spotlight. Also, try to edit your pictures with readily available photo editing software to remove identifying information. Go as far as blacking out your eyes, for example, so that facial recognition software cannot easily identify you. You can always send a clear picture of yourself to family and friends directly by email after the fact. Also, make sure you strip your photo of any meta data, most importantly, the location taken. Finally, this article is not meant to encourage people to stop sharing and posting. Indeed, I believe in sharing and staying connected, but I simply want to raise the awareness of how “public” we all are even if we don’t think we are and remind everyone that:
• Digital Information Never Forgets
• Can Go Viral
• Can End up on Parasite Websites
• Can Make You Infamous
Stay connected, but be safe.