Who owns you?

David recently blogged here (http://avien.net/blog/?p=253) on his concerns over the ways that our personal data is increasingly online and available to everyone who might want it.

On a similar theme, a site called “Web 2.0 Suicide Machine” has recently been sent a cease and desist order by Facebook on the grounds that by “collecting login credentials, the site violates its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities”. This sort of controversy raises the question of who owns an account on a site – not just a social networking site – what about a webmail account? But, more on that shortly. It’s a tricky question, and I suspect that the answer is that the information is jointly owned once you give the information, you enter a contract to allow the recipient to use your info according to their terms and conditions (which could be to publish it all over the place, or just to change your password and never let you back into the account).

It’s only recently that Facebook provided its members with a facility to fully delete (rather than deactivate) their accounts. As someone who spends a lot of time on social networking sites, I’ve often felt the urge to be able to ‘get away from it all’. The idea of being able to commit ‘Web 2.0 suicide’ is in some ways quite appealing, and it does remove the awful problem of trying to delete all that data yourself – and avoids the thorny problem of always being able to get back in and start again. I did actually do this at one point, I entirely deleted my accounts on MySpace and Bebo, removed as much as I could from Orkut (more on Google below) and deactivated (the only option available at the time) my Facebook account. However, after some time after constant messages still arriving from Facebook I succumbed and reactivated my account (although I’m much less obsessive about it, and used the privacy controls to lock it down far more than had been the case before). I’ve never revived the other accounts, basically because I’m to lazy to set them up again. I’m pretty sure that I’d not have come back to Facebook had my account been actually deleted – but Web 2.0 Suicide Machine (and similar services) are in some ways even better, they leave you no option but to start again, because they change your password, and your profile will still exist, only you can’t get to it.

Of course, giving a third party (whether an SN site like Facebook or a service like W2.0SM) your account information is a risk, because you don’t really know what they’re going to do with it, maybe W2.0SM are going to sign you up to all sorts of groups or services on FB, or use your account to click through on site advertising to raise revenue, maybe they’ll harvest  your email addresses and send them to spammers, maybe they’re going to use your phone number and address to do all manner of things. I doubt it, but it’s possible were less ethical people in charge of it. At least, if you’re going to use such a service, remove your most critical private information first.

You can read more on this story here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/8441080.stm

Sometime last year, I got an invitation to Google Wave (http://wave.google.com) and had a play around with it. It’s interesting in many ways – not all of them obvious. There has been plenty of comment in other places about what Google Wave does, or what it doesn’t do, but I’m not really interested in that. As far as I’m concerned it was pretty much a failure because nobody could really think of a problem that it solved in a better way than existing technologies. But, what does interest me is what that sort of platform offers to Google. In a collaboration system you have multiple people working on topics. They will discuss the topic, and the group will be focused on a single issue (or set of issues). This is a goldmine for a company like Google which makes money from selling advertising. Nearly everything that Google does is ‘free’ to the user, and the cost is that everything you do is tracked and monetized somehow for Google’s advertising clients. The more services Google provides, and the more you sign up to use, the more exposed you are (and therefore the more useful to Google). I have Gmail (and therefore Gmail Chat), Picasa, Google Wave, Google Apps, a Google Books library, a Google Calendar and so on (as mentioned above I also have a Google Orkut account, though relatively denuded of information). Now, all of those things provide information about me and my interests to Google, allowing targeted advertising to be delivered, and useful demographic information to be collected.

Google wave is a whole different beast, because it doesn’t just connect a few random parts of my life that may or may not be current (for instance, me posting photographs of me with funny hair as a teenager isn’t really that interesting to Google – nor anyone else I should think), it connects people who are discussing a topic of mutual interest, in real time. Planning a trip to India? Great, in real time, to your group specifically, Google can target advertising from firms offering travel services in India. Working on a conference in Sydney? Google can target advertising from firms in the area. Even better, your conference is at the Four Points Sheraton? Great, Google can advertise a room discount, the restaurants withing walking distance, a limo service, the theaters, cinemas etc. About to go for a coffee break? Google can pop up the location of the nearest StarCostaPacket coffee store and offer a 50c discount good for the next two hours.

It’s clear that corporations are interested in getting the most relevant information to consumers, and what better way than exploiting real time data on topics currently under discussion. It’s a goldmine, or would be, if only there was a problem that only Google Wave could fix.

Andrew Lee CISSP
AVIEN CEO, CTO K7 Computing Pvt Ltd.

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