Google Social Graph API, privacy and the public record

I’m digesting some of the reactions to Google’s recently announced Social Graph API. ReadWriteWeb ask whether this is a creeping privacy violation, and danah boyd has a thoughtful post raising concerns about whether the privileged tech elite have any right to experiment in this way with the online lives of those who are lack status, knowledge of these obscure technologies, and who may be amongst the more vulnerable users of the social Web.

While I tend to agree with Tim O’Reilly that privacy by obscurity is dead, I’m not of the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought. Tim argues,

The counter-argument is that all this data is available anyway, and that by making it more visible, we raise people’s awareness and ultimately their behavior. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a lot like the evolutionary value of pain. Search creates feedback loops that allow us to learn from and modify our behavior. A false sense of security helps bad actors more than tools that make information more visible.

There’s a danger here of technologists seeming to blame those we’re causing pain for. As danah says, “Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc.”. Not everyone knows their DTD from their TCP, or understand anything of how search engines, HTML or hyperlinks work. And many folk have more urgent things to focus on than learning such obscurities, let alone understanding the practical privacy, safety and reputation-related implications of their technology-mediated deeds.

Web technologists have responsibilities to the users of the Web, and while media education and literacy are important, those who are shaping and re-shaping the Web ought to be spending serious time on a daily basis struggling to come up with better ways of allowing humans to act and interact online without other parties snooping. The end of privacy by obscurity should not mean the death of privacy.

Privacy is not dead, and we will not get over it.

But it does need to be understood in the context of the public record. The reason I am enthusiastic about the Google work is that it shines a big bright light on the things people are currently putting into the public record. And it does so in a way that should allow people to build better online environments for those who do want their public actions visible, while providing immediate – and sometimes painful – feedback to those who have over-exposed themselves in the Web, and wish to backpedal.

I hope Google can put a user support mechanism on this. I know from our experience in the FOAF community, even with small scale and obscure aggregators, people will find themselves and demand to be “taken down”. While any particular aggregator can remove or hide such data, unless the data is tracked back to its source, it’ll crop up elsewhere in the Web.

I think the argument that FOAF and XFN are particularly special here is a big mistake. Web technologies used correctly (posh – “plain old semantic html” in microformats-speak) already facilitate such techniques. And Google is far from the only search engine in existence. Short of obfuscating all text inside images, personal data from these sites is readily harvestable.

ReadWriteWeb comment:

None the less, apparently the absence of XFN/FOAF data in your social network is no assurance that it won’t be pulled into the new Google API, either. The Google API page says “we currently index the public Web for XHTML Friends Network (XFN), Friend of a Friend (FOAF) markup and other publicly declared connections.” In other words, it’s not opt-in by even publishers – they aren’t required to make their information available in marked-up code.

The Web itself is built from marked-up code, and this is a thing of huge benefit to humanity. Both microformats and the Semantic Web community share the perspective that the Web’s core technologies (HTML, XHTML, XML, URIs) are properly consumed both by machines and by humans, and that any efforts to create documents that are usable only by (certain fortunate) humans is anti-social and discriminatory.

The Web Accessibility movement have worked incredibly hard over many years to encourage Web designers to create well marked up pages, where the meaning of the content is as mechanically evident as possible. The more evident the meaning of a document, the easier it is to repurpose it or present it through alternate means. This goal of device-independent, well marked up Web content is one that unites the accessibility, Mobile Web, Web 2.0, microformat and Semantic Web efforts. Perhaps the most obvious case is for blind and partially sighted users, but good markup can also benefit those with the inability to use a mouse or keyboard. Beyond accessibility, many millions of Web users (many poor, and in poor countries) will have access to the Web only via mobile phones. My former employer W3C has just published a draft document, “Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices”. Last month in Bangalore, W3C held a Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (see executive summary).

I read both Tim’s post, and danah’s post, and I agree with large parts of what they’re both saying. But not quite with either of them, so all I can think to do is spell out some of my perhaps previously unarticulated assumptions.

  • There is no huge difference in principle between “normal” HTML Web pages and XFN or FOAF. Textual markup is what the Web is built from.
  • FOAF and XFN take some of the guesswork out of interpreting markup. But other technologies (javascript, perl, XSLT/GRDDL) can also transform vague markup into more machine-friendly markup. FOAF/XFN simply make this process easier and less heuristic, less error prone.
  • Google was not the first search engine, it is not the only search engine, and it will not be the last search engine. To obsess on Google’s behaviour here is to mistake Google for the Web.
  • Deeds that are on the public record in the Web may come to light months or years later; Google’s opening up of the (already public, but fragmented) Usenet historical record is a good example here.
  • Arguing against good markup practice on the Web (accessible, device independent markup) is something that may hurt underprivileged users (with disabilities, or limited access via mobile, high bandwidth costs etc).
  • Good markup allows content to be automatically summarised and re-presented to suit a variety of means of interaction and navigation (eg. voice browsers, screen readers, small screens, non-mouse navigation etc).
  • Good markup also makes it possible for search engines, crawlers and aggregators to offer richer services.

The difference between Google crawling FOAF/XFN from LiveJournal, versus extracting similar information via custom scripts from MySpace, is interesting and important solely to geeks. Mainstream users have no idea of such distinctions. When LiveJournal originally launched their FOAF files in 2004, the rule they followed was a pretty sensible one: if the information was there in the HTML pages, they’d also expose it in FOAF.

We need to be careful of taking a ruthless “you can’t make an omelete without breaking eggs” line here. Whatever we do, people will suffer. If the Web is made inaccessible, with information hidden inside image files or otherwise obfuscated, we exclude a huge constituency of users. If we shine a light on the public record, as Google have done, we’ll embarass, expose and even potentially risk harm to the people described by these interlinked documents. And if we stick our head in the sand and pretend that these folk aren’t exposed, I predict this will come back to bite us in the butt in a few months or years, since all that data is out there, being crawled, indexed and analysed by parties other than Google. Parties with less to lose, and more to gain.

So what to do? I think several activities need to happen in parallel:

  • Best practice codes for those who expose, and those who aggregate, social Web data
  • Improved media literacy education for those who are unwittingly exposing too much of themselves online
  • Technology development around decentralised, non-public record communication and community tools (eg. via Jabber/XMPP)

Any search engine at all, today, is capable of supporting the following bit of mischief:

Take some starting point a collection of user profiles on a public site. Extract all the usernames. Find the ones that appear in the Web less than say 10,000 times, and on other sites. Assume these are unique userIDs and crawl the pages they appear in, do some heuristic name matching, … and you’ll have a pile of smushed identities, perhaps linking professional and dating sites, or drunken college photos to respectable-new-life. No FOAF needed.

The answer I think isn’t to beat up on the aggregators, it’s to improve the Web experience such that people can have real privacy when they need it, rather than the misleading illusion of privacy. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t see a credible alternative.

Published by danbri

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  1. Thanks for another insightful blog post, danbri! I’ve gone from the “privacy is dead, now the important thing is transparancy at all levels”-camp, to “privacy is important, and we can help to make it a practical reality”-camp.

    I fully agree that an illusion of privacy is worthless, but there are those who like illusions, and to many an illusion of privacy is better than real privacy, so we actually have to make real privacy a compelling possibility.

    I think we need to work on this problem in parallell with efforts on the social web. In particular, I think there is a lot of promise in but it has to move beyond the pilot application level to practical, deployed solutions.

  2. The means versus the needs. Indeed people should not blame specifically FOAF or HTML, but in the meantime the fact that they are writing pages and the way they are writing them is the only *source of control* they have in their hands.

    The rules of hurt others/hurt myself will also go towards saving your own life, except in a very few cases.

    Knowing that what do we do? We have to push technologies and define practices which help people to control the granularity of access to their content. is a part of the puzzle, but there is a lot more to do.

  3. danbri,

    Google does a lot more than opening up published data and putting spotlights on it. Google makes assumptions and publishes them. It’s ok when I link to all the accounts I own in my FOAF file and put that in the public and they come and index it so that you can google me better. But if I don’t make any connections between my accounts then that means I don’t *want* people to know. And that’s no obscurity but simply facts that I didn’t publish.

    I did a rough check on what the Social Graph API has about me. One of my account names clashes with a nick on a turkish hacker site and so it assumes we’re the same person (and for some reason it also thinks that I am that site as well so I get connections to all kinds of other people who it thinks are me). Sure with freedom of opinion I’d say everyone’s basically allowed to say person X is a criminal, with X being me or some famous person or whoever. But if it’s a company like Google then they should think about their responsibility before making and publishing wild assumptions. Maybe I will not get a job because someone googles my social graph and believes in that? Yes, ideally society would understand the Internet better and not do things like that. But we’re simply not there yet. Society might need half a century or more to catch up with the changes and implications the Internet has brought so far – and things are still changing!

    Making the existing public record more accessible is good, but Google is adding to the public record based on algorithms only they know (once again).

  4. This is very much a hot topic in the online safety world. For example, Sonia Livingstone has been doing some research under the EU Kids Online Project, looking particulary at the group that Danah Boyd, rightly, notes as being vulnerable – teenagers. There’s some work going on under the (UK) Home Office Task Force on Child Protection looking at best practice too (I’m trying to get you a copy).

    So what are the dangers? Well, at heart it’s down to teenage life. Like most of us who have happily passed well beyond that time in our lives, there are things I did and said then that I really don’t want dragged up in public – and I’m as square and law abding as they come. Some universities and employers really do look online for profiles of their candidates before deciding whether to accept their application. In 20 years’ time will it be right to find out that you’ve not got a job because when you were 16 you drank too much after taking your school exams? (Euan Blair take note!)

    I can’t find a public reference but Sonia Livingstone spoke at a conference I was at recently about some young people who had – past tense – an active MySpace profile. Now they’re more grown up so they’ve moved on to Facebook. They already don’t want to be associated with the fluffy pink hearts or stereotypical male black and red colour schemes of their junior selve’s profiles. Other teenagers shared their passwords amongst themselves so that they could play the game of editing each other’s profiles. “Yes, my profile says I’m a 36 year old bridge engineer with a bit of a drink problem but that’s cool – I know it’s rubbish and so does everyone else I know – my _real_ profile’s at xyz and that’s the one that’s important” – how is an open system supposed to know the difference?

    And what about peer pressure? Imagine a child who, for whatever reason, has moved area and needs to keep their location private (think abusive parent, bullying victim or whatever). Those children are already vulnerable and, of course, they will want to join all their school friends online. How can they do that safely if the machines are going to make connections between people without any control by those individuals (or their parents in the case of minors)?

    It’s a big topic and one that the policy side of industry is aware of. As ever, it’s the good guys like Vodafone, Bebo and MySpace who are actively looking at how to keep their user’s safe. Engineers need to be aware of this stuff too before they open everyone’s private lives to everyone else.

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