Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Secrets and Lies

It's no secret that there's no secrets anymore. We all live untidy online lives and leave behind a trail – little pieces of information, small actions, and fragmented facts – that others can too easily follow to reconstruct a whole picture of Who, What and Where.

Secrets come in many flavors. Google's Eric Schmidt boasts about his company's ability to identify our predilections, better to serve content and advertising. An amazing 5% of the US population was a victim of identity theft in 2009, accounting for $54 billion in fraud. Popular computer repair outfit The Geek Squad have become the new best friend of the Feds, discovering and reporting illicit content on computer hard-drives.

The newest fertile ground for uncovering our secret selves is social media. Technorati calls social media a “playground” for ID thieves. A friend who advises High School kids on how to stay out of trouble has one big admonishment: if you think it's risky, don't photograph it, don't post it, don't IM it. Everything is evidence. Loose lips used to sink ships; now they sink careers, reputations, and lives.

Social media have long been active in this newly capitalized muckracking. Twitter, Facebook and the rest need to make money, and this means that they need to infiltrate our online identities, and use or sell the information they gather. This can be as innocent as matching anonymous demographic information to placed advertising, or as nefarious as data mining exquisite details about our finances and friends.

And now, social media metrics tools are being put to the same end, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal reports that Nielsen and its social media business BuzzMetrics opened an account at PatientsLikeMe, then began to siphon off information about participants on discussion groups. So, even if social media sites themselves provide safeguards or permission barriers around your personal information, monitoring and measurement tools can still scrape data about you.

It may be too easy to find our secrets, but it is often impossible to isolate the truth of things. In this month's Atlantic magazine, Michael Hirschorn reports on how online discourse allows all sides to invent their own set of facts, and that this has pernicious consequences. Twelve percent of Americans believe their president is a Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center. An amazing 41 percent of Republicans believe Obama was foreign-born, which if true would make him ineligible to be president. Opinion has always blurred facts, but increasingly it's impossible to take anything on face value – even so-called news.

In an old post I'd borrowed the old joke, “on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” to illustrate how easy it is to mask reality online, and how vital it is to establish authenticity and source credibility. This is true, but things are also more complicated: It's hard to reconcile that our personal identities – the facts of who we are- are being strip mined, yet at another level it's all too easy to propagate patent lies.

There is so much information today, and who controls it matters.

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