This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class. For more about this assignment, click here.
Published by Feross Aboukhadijeh.
For my research project I will be examining privacy and security on the Internet.
The Internet, and social networks in particular, are causing unprecedented change in our society. Never before in history have people shared so much personal information with the world so willing and so frequently. It has never been easier to stay connected with the people who matter in our lives, even if they are thousands of miles away. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of ways to stay in touch — Facebook (wall posts, private messages, chat, comments), Twitter (public @replies, direct messages), Myspace, Instant Messaging (AIM, Yahoo, MSN, iChat, Skype), blogging (blog posts, blog comments), text messages (SMS, MMS), not to mention the classic — email, telephone, voicemail.
But, with all of this new electronic communication comes a definite loss of individual privacy. There are numerous privacy risks that can affect Internet users – from the relatively benign gathering of statistics to the malicious mining of user data, it’s clear that data gathering is here to stay. Nearly all websites on the Internet use some form of visitor tracking software to learn more about their visitors. In many cases, the mere existence of this user data in such a large quantity is itself a danger to user privacy, no matter how well-protected or trustworthy the company.
One particularly interesting example of a user privacy violation was the 2006 AOL Search Data Scandal during which AOL released the search data for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period onto the Internet. The data was intended the data to be used for research purposes. However, the data contained user’s unfiltered searches for twenty million search keywords – including searches on full names, phone numbers, social security numbers, and other personal information.
The New York Times even used this data to actually locate an AOL user in real life. By cross-referencing the user’s searches with phonebook listings, the Times easily identified the searcher as Thelma Arnold, a 62-year-old widow who lives in Lilburn, Georgia. Arnold had searched for such terms as “numb fingers”, “60 single men”, and “dog that urinates on everything.”
This example illustrates the harm that even well-intentioned researchers can make, even while trying to help the academic community.
I intend to investigate the extent to which the Internet, including social networking and social media, has affected online privacy. By comparing user perceptions about online privacy with factual evidence about actual privacy practices online, I hope to identify the extent to which there is a disconnect between the two, what sorts of privacy violations are going on, and what is motivating these new trends.
I believe in good faith that my usage of the above copyrighted images, which are low-resolution, and illustrate the subject of my article, and are used for a scholastic pursuit, qualifies as fair use in the United States.