Ever wondered how much of your personal data a company could mine in a couple seconds, from one source?
Head on over to Digital Shadow (“You are not an individual,” the homepage boasts. “You are a data cluster”), a website built to promote the new video game Watch Dogs, and—if you’re feeling adventurous on this fine Friday—click the big blue button that allows you to log in with Facebook. The website will proceed to scrape everything from your Facebook friends list to your geo-location data, and spit back a profile that details everything from your salary to the people with whom you chat on a regular basis.
Your level of regular Facebook interaction will, inevitably, determine the accuracy of the data; but even if you don’t use the social network very much, the website manages to nail some metrics—places you hang out the most, your salary, your age—with reasonable precision. The kicker, of course, is that Facebook only features information you’ve voluntarily inputted over the years; however freaky this Digital Shadow’s abilities (and the website’s language is deliberately frightening, filled with terms such as “pawns” and “scapegoats,” because it’s trying to sell an espionage/action game), the software isn’t engaging in any sophisticated spy-craft.
For the past several years, privacy advocates have voiced concerns over how social networks, corporations, government agencies, and data miners collect, aggregate, and ultimately sell personal information. Last year’s revelations of government spying by whistleblower (and former NSA contractor) Edward Snowden increased the volume of those public concerns. At the same time, however, it’s hard to dissuade people from giving up massive amounts of personal data, if what they get in return are fun and useful services such as Gmail and Facebook; even in the wake of massive data breaches, the companies hosting those services never seem to experience a sizable downturn in user engagement.
That tension between privacy and commerce will surely continue for years. In the meantime, the old rules still apply: If you don’t want a company leveraging a piece of personal data for profit, it’s best not to place it on a social network.