If you understand this commercial, you know how to play the game, too.
In the age of Facebook, myriad popular sites offer user-friendly experiences online to willing participants of all demographics. The moderately tech-literate have become habituated to handing over personal information about themselves in exchange for access to internet services. That expository act is rarely mulled over by users, often because the alternative would shut them out from activities which are increasingly becoming socially requisite. Social networking platforms add social value to displaying personal information publicly thereby making it widely available to other users, the platform itself, and any privy third parties. For the most part, these high-profile identification games have stayed in the academic and commercial arenas, fueling research and product advertising. However, in February of 2009, 4chan users demonstrated their similar gumshoe prowess with more benevolent applications. 4channers were outraged by a video of a child abusing his cat, identified him, and contacted local authorities. The suspect was arrested, the feline rescued, and the high-stakes game of Clue formerly played by big buisness and universities yielded unforseen consequences. From these examples, it is easy to extrapolate the more sinister and invasive uses of data mining and brokering–an emerging frontier novel and amorphous enough to evade regulation to date.
Recent data mining experiments have further exposed the prevalence of persistent identity, a consequence of the public’s robustly developed online personalities which has tied real-world individuals to their internet personas more closely than ever before. These involved projects sift through nameless banks of detailed information about users’ internet behavior, using their habits to reverse engineer their real-life counterparts. At MIT, a pair of students facebook stalked over 4,000 profiles, analyzing details like friend circles and tracking identifying traits until they were able to predict whether a guy was gay from the information displayed on his page. Their final product–78% accuracy–is an undeniable indicator of the trail of breadcrumbs that lead from our online identities to our real ones. A similar project allowed Carnegie Mellon researchers to dig up people’s place date of birth and use that information to uncover their Social Security numbers.
Social networking tools have become the most powerful and comprehensive information aggregators ever, encouraging users to submit and disseminate every intimate detail of their lives. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was taken aback by the extent to which data collection could produce comprehensive infocaches, a gasping response that I found amusing. Specifically dedicated online services, like Netflix, are able to draw accurate, specific conclusions about their users from the information that they inevitably share as part of using the service. Federal discomfort and private litigation brought Netflix’s crowdsourced research into improving the accuracy of their users’ movie tastes to a screeching halt. The F.T.C. and Congress are squirming in their seats, making statements about how third parties, like advertisers, have access to far too much information about internet users’ habits. I find their surprised tone humorous–how did they not see this coming? Their shock has been more jaw-dropping than concrete action, illustrated by the flimsy mitigation suggestions like a “do not track” list similar to the “do not call” list. Wise up, guys. If you share information on the internet, odds are that you’re sharing it with the world. The architecture of the internet won’t allow that. More importantly, the users of the internet won’t allow that. We just need to get a little better at playing this new Clue, and leave fewer identifying footprints in our digital wake if we don’t like the implications of persistent identity.