Google Portrait – under the internet magnifying glass

On January 7th, 2009 the french magazine Le Tigre published what it termed the first Google portrait of Marc L. a pseudonym for a randomly selected 29 years old young man. Using information publicly available on the internet and common sense an amazingly accurate and detailed profile of that person was constructed. The magazine wanted to illustrate the dangers of collating personal information spread all over the web.

The french daily Le Monde picked up the story on January 17th, giving the subject the pseudonym Jule. The young man was told about the article by a friend. He initially did not take it seriously, but once he started reading, he was shocked. There were so many personal and even intimate details (his travels, his love affairs, his friends etc.) that he contacted Le Tigre and asked that the article be removed. Legal opinion told him that there wasn’t much to achieve through courts, as all information was from public sources. Le Tigre sanitized the web-based article by anonymizing further details other than the name, but for the paper based article not much could be done. But even after the sanitizing the article makes for interesting reading (if you read French or like Google translation).

Some juicy extracts

Here is the English translation of a short section of the lengthy article, addressed in letter style to the subject:
Let’s get back to you. You are single and heterosexual (Facebook). In spring of 2008 you had an affair with Clauda R***, who works at the French-Austrian Culural Centre in Bordeaux (I did not find her immediately because the character ü has to be spelled ue for Google). In any case I can confirm, she is charming, small breasts, short hair, nice legs. You give us the address of her parents, V*** Boulevard in Bordeaux. (…) Please note that I have her work telephone number (opening for a pedagogic assistant position at the Cultural Center; she works in recruitment).”

What an innocent message reply can do

Another section is revealing of how easy personal information on Facebook is released. The reporter accumulating the profile created a fake ID on Facebook and asked to become friends with Marc or Jule. The young man was suspicious and did not accept. However, he replied with a message “Hi Who are you? Regards, Marc”. The reporter was about to reply with some invented story, when Facebook alerted him that when he sends a message to someone on Facebook they gain access to his list of friends, his core, work and education information for a month. The reporter realized he did not even need to reply and gained access to Marc’s information!

Morale of the story

As The Foush recently recommended, you should do self audits on the internet, not only for the sake of verifying correctness or reputation management, but more importantly from a security perspective. Look at all information (text, pictures, videos, tags by third parties) and ask yourself, what can a third party do with it. Clean up where possible, although with more and more sites including in their agreements (yes, those you don’t read and just click “accept”), “perpetual and irrevocable” rights to anything you post on them it is becoming increasingly difficult to remove your information.

The 27 European CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés) are debating some safeguards including imposing guidelines enabling web users to erase their personal information when they so desire. My take: even if legislated, it’s going to be a long up-hill battle, as information moves across systems and jurisdictions globally. That’s not even taking into consideration the drooling marketeers, organized crime, and intelligence services all over the world.

Arguably, you always give up some privacy when you join a community, but the surrender of private information that we’re witnessing is a “strange phenomenon of shared exhibitionism and mutual narcissim” as Alex Türk, president of the French CNIL puts it in Le Monde. So, where to draw the line when you are part of multiple global communities, when public spaces are increasingly privatized, and private spaces are shrinking continuously?

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