Connected by threads

The Boston Globe covers several recent studies that have been able to work out sensitive personal details from information made public on social networking sites, possibly including your sexual orientation.

As we discussed earlier this week, huge amounts of information can be gleaned about your life through social network analysis simply from the patterns in your interactions.

In computer security and counter intelligence this is part of a technique called traffic analysis which has a long history in law enforcement. For example, before the days of the internet the UK police would use the Harlequin system to work out social networks from phone call patterns as these were much easier to obtain than court orders allowing phone taps.

Now, we put much of this information online ourselves but are unaware of how much the explicit personal information that we deliberately keep private is still available implicitly in the public data trail.

Sociologists have known this for years but the rapid spread of electronic communication has spurred the development of analysis tools as well as providing the real world data on which it can be applied.

Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public.

Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.

Link to Globe article on social networks and personal info (via MeFi).

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