Anatomy of a socnet background check

Paul Raven @ 08-07-2011

Over at Gizmodo, they’ve taken the social network “background check” service offered by a company called Social Intelligence for a spin. The results are interesting:

In May, the FTC gave a company called Social Intelligence the green light to run background checks of your Internet and social media history. The media made a big hulabaloo out of the ruling. And it largely got two important facts wrong.

Contrary to initial reports, Social Intelligence doesn’t store seven years worth of your social data. Rather it looks at up to seven years of your history, and stores nothing.

The second was the idea that it was looking for boozy or embarrassing photos of you to pass along to your employer. In fact it screens for just a handful of things: aggressive or violent acts or assertions, unlawful activity, discriminatory activity (for example, making racist statements), and sexually explicit activity. And it doesn’t pass on identifiable photos of you at all. In other words, your drunken kegstand photos are probably fine as long as you’re not wearing a T-shirt with a swastika or naked from the waist down.

Basically, it just wants to know if you’re the kind of asshole who will cause legal hassles for an employer.

[…]

… we learned a few things about how it works, and what you can do if you’ve got to have one of these reports run. And you will.

For starters, what it doesn’t include in the report is nearly as interesting as what it does. Every image of me that might be able to identify my ethnicity is blacked out, even my hands. On my homepage, a line that reads “I drink too much beer” has been obscured because it’s ultimately irrelevant. Screw you, boss man. I love my beer. (Joe: please do not fire me.)

And then there’s the stuff it didn’t find. For example, our editor in chief, Joe Brown, has a Facebook account under a different name he uses for close friends who do not want to be subjected to his work-related posts. (And, you know, to avoid annoying publicists who try to friend him.) It’s easily findable if you know his personal email address. We gave that address to Social Intelligence, but it didn’t dig up his aliased account, just his main profile.

It also seems like it helps to have a large Web footprint. Yeah, it found some negative hits. Tip of the iceberg, my man!

There was much more to find buried deep in my Google search results that could have been just as incriminating. Sometimes, on even more than one level.

Plenty more detail in that piece, but to cut a long story short, it’ll be eminently possible to live a fun fulfilling life online and not flunk one of these background checks… although, counterintuitively perhaps, it appears that broadcasting more of your life rather than less of it is one way to help yourself.

But note that SI’s offer is essentially an outsource offer, and – deliberately, thanks to the constrains of certain laws – much more limited than a few hours of Googling an employee by name. A big firm could easily have a dedicated HR drone whose job it was to rake over the pasts of potential applicants for nasty nuggets. Hell, keep their paygrade low enough, and there’ll be plenty of axe-grinding motivation for them to dish the dirt on high-level managerial applicants; few things motivate in a shitty job as powerfully as resentment, after all. Though don’t treat ’em too bad… you wouldn’t want them agitating your own layers of silt, now would you?

(Businesses: if this sounds like a good plan to you, don’t delay, start hiring now! After all, the job market – at least here in the UK – is about to be flooded with people who’ve made a living by digging up the mundane failures and foibles of people’s private lives and exposing them to public scrutiny, so hire now while they’re still cheap! You may even find that a bit of your own research will enable you to apply the very same sort of leverage upon them, too.)

On this side of the pond, meanwhile, the European parliament is trying to enshrine an Eric Shmidt-esque “right to be forgotten” into law. Tessa Mayes remains unimpressed:

we shouldn’t champion a right to be forgotten. Why? For one, it could be used to stifle our culture’s imagination by banning freedom of expression. It could encourage public figures to claim a “right to erase what people say about my sex life”, as some have been trying to do using superinjunctions, and as Max Mosley, whose orgy was exposed in the News of the World, failed to do in the European Court of Human Rights. But that isn’t my main reason. An exemption could be made so it refers only to data processing rather than when your data is talked about.

Neither am I arguing from a technical point of view: that there’s no point in trying to be forgotten online because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve (although technical challenges don’t help).

Instead my argument is political, about the conception of individuals’ power in our society. The right to be forgotten conjures up the idea of a passive, isolated individual, outside of society. This is a figment of an imagination that believes individuals should exist in the shadows and bureaucrats should act as our puppet masters.

By contrast, at the heart of a right to privacy is the conception of us all as engaged citizens. As social beings we interact in public life. However, sometimes we need downtime from it. A right to privacy recognises that a social existence demands a public and a private life, both of which we control.

A remarkably apropos and proleptic piece of writing, considering the events of the last few days here in the UK; I suspect privacy will be a hot topic here for a good few weeks to come, too. But before we sign off on this one, let’s make a call-back to Bill Gibson’s thoughts from last year on making your past unGooglable:

… I don’t find this a very realistic idea, however much the prospect of millions of people living out their lives in individual witness protection programs, prisoners of their own youthful folly, appeals to my novelistic Kafka glands. Nor do I take much comfort in the thought that Google itself would have to be trusted never to link one’s sober adulthood to one’s wild youth, which surely the search engine, wielding as yet unimagined tools of transparency, eventually could and would do.

I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

We adapt. And better still, we don’t even notice ourselves adapting… possibly because we’re too busy panicking about the idea of having to adapt.

[ Cue resurrection of OMG GOOGLE IZ TOO BIG KILL IT WIV FIRE! riff in 5… 4… 3… ]


GreenGoose and the gamification of… er, pretty much everything

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2011

Still trying to get a handle on that whole Internet Of Things idea? Intrigued by the buzzphrase “gamification”, or the concept of lifelogging-as-behavioural-feedback channel? Wondering what people are trying to do with RFID now that the futureglow has faded from that particular tech concept? Here’s where they all meet up:

the folks behind Green Goose […] have come up with a system that turns boring tasks like brushing your teeth and exercising into a game that awards the ‘player’ with lifestyle points for completing various everyday tasks, in much the same way as players earn experience points in role playing games.

Green Goose uses wireless sensors that can be attached to objects, such as a toothbrush, water bottle or bike, to detect when you perform a task you have set yourself and rewards you with lifestyle points. These sensors were originally only available as egg-shaped attachments tailored for specific uses, but have now been shrunk down to small stickers and credit-card sized devices that can be attached to just about anything.

Worried that your kids live in world that’s much like The Sims? Well, why not make reality more like The Sims!

Interestingly (though not surprisingly, gamifying child behaviour wasn’t the original application:

The company was originally positioning the system as a tool for ecological and financial responsibility with its egg-shaped sensors designed to be attached to a bike, thermostat or showerhead to keep track of how much money a user saves by riding their bike instead of driving, keeping the air conditioning down or taking shorter showers.

At the risk of channeling Chairman Bruce, man, I can’t imagine why people weren’t queuing up to buy a game that would continually remind them how much they were screwing over the environment on a daily basis! We all know we need to do something, but there ain’t much comfort in being reminded just how much we need to do…

GreenGoose looks eminently hackable, though, not to mention easily cloned on the cheap; I can see some interesting interstitial/AR gaming applications straight away, but I suspect that, as always, the street will find its own uses for things that no one entirely expected. How’s about this one: fair allocation and metering of time-sensitive resources in your favela-chic stuffed-animal commune? Gotta keep track of who’s caning the hot water, after all, and if you ain’t done your chores then you don’t get your full bandwidth quota for the day…


Copyright and the Eyeborg

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

Well, so much for my ability to see potential conflicts arising from new technologies; when we were talking about Rob “Eyeborg” Spence the other day, it never even occured to me that live streaming video from a human-implanted camera would open a massive can of copyright worms.

… what happens when he goes to the movies? Or, what if he goes to a sporting event with an exclusive broadcast right?

Quite. Obviously it’s not far beyond being a purely hypothetical issue at the moment, but wind forward a decade to a point where AR spex and similar hardware are as ubiquitous as smartphones are now, and you’ve got a real legal minefield around infringement techniques which will be difficult to police… just like we have right now, in other words, only more so.

At least we know the lawyers won’t be going hungry.


Canuck filmmaker considers streaming live video from his bionic eye

Paul Raven @ 14-06-2010

Well, this sidesteps the clunky implementations of lifelogging that we’ve seen so far. Rob Spence lost the vision in his tright eye in a shooting accident, and decided to replace it with a small camera unit, making it onto Time Magazine‘s best inventions list for 2009 (even though they’ve only had the thing working properly for a short time).

Now Spence’s eye has a wi-fi transmitter that can stream its video output to a computer; from there, it’s a short step to making Spence’s field of vision a free-to-view live feed available to anyone with an internet connection [via SlashDot]. There are some minor technical issues to iron out first, though:

The prototype in the video provides low-res images, but an authentic experience of literally seeing through someone else’s perspective. The image is somewhat jerky and overhung by huge eyelashes; a blink throws everything out of whack for a half-second.

[…]

The Eyeborg prototype in the video, the third, can only work for an hour an a half on a fully charged battery. Its transmitter is quite weak, so Spence has to hold a receiving antenna to his cheek to get a clear signal. He muses that he should build a Seven of Nine-style eyepiece to house it. He’s experimenting with a new prototype that has a stronger transmitter, other frequencies and a booster on the receiver.

It surely won’t be all that long before equivalent hardware could be slipped into a fully-functional biological eye… possibly without the knowledge or permission of the eye’s owner. Which suggests that the tin-foil bonnet brigade will upgrade their fears of surveillance through compromised cell phones to a fear of covertly-implanted audio and video capture devices… hey, it could happen, man*.

[ * Though this assumes, as do most such paranoid conspiracy theories, a level of competence, clandestine secrecy and forward planning of which most nation-state governments seem utterly incapable. I wouldn’t credit the UK government with the ability to successfully tap a barrel of beer, let alone my eyesight… and if they did somehow pull it off, they’d only go and leave the footage on the back seat of a bus. ]


Facebook as your alibi

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2009

We’ve surely heard enough stories about how posting status updates on social networks can give away more information about you than you intended, so here’s the positive flipside of that: Rodney Bradford was a suspect in a Brooklyn mugging case, and it’s partly thanks to a Facebook status update made from his father’s apartment that the charges against him were dropped. [via TechDirt]

Of course, such alibis could be faked, if you had the time and intelligence to plan it all out and the help of a close-lipped accomplice… expect a lot more mystery and crime plots involving status updates, IP addresses and server timestamps to crop up in the next couple of years.

But perhaps this means that lifelogging is the ultimate way to protect yourself from accidentally being accused of something you didn’t do – if every second of your life is open to public scrutiny, you’re not going to commit a mugging and get away with it, after all.

But what happens when we’re all lifelogging, in some almost unimaginable combination of the participatory panopticon and David Brin’s transparent society? When every moment, when every minor indiscretion is a matter of public record, will we simply cease to sin? Or will we develop a kind of social blindness to the sort of unethical actions that we all take every now and again?


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