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Privacy & Data

Keeping Friends Close and Friends with Good Credit Scores Closer

You’ve always been careful to protect information on your Facebook profile. Your political views and wall are only available to your closest friends. Your photo albums show you sipping tea in tweed jackets – those photos of you playing beer pong were scrubbed long ago. But you’ve never been too concerned that anyone who Googles you can see a list of your friends. After all, what can a list of your friends tell a stranger about you anyway?

A lot, it turns out. Fast Company just published a fascinating piece on its blog about the mapping of social network data, a growing facet of the practice called Social Media Monitoring (SMM). SMM is the logical confluence of two trends: an advertising-supported Internet that has a voracious appetite for information about consumers in order to deliver targeted ads and a rapid increase in the amount of information individuals make available online, mainly through social networking. As CDT Vice President Jim Dempsey told Fast Company, “It’s only logical that marketers would be looking for value in that information.”

Fast Company focused on Rapleaf, a San Francisco-based company that consolidates publicly available information about your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and book reviews. Marketers’ assessments of you can be influenced not only by what you reveal online, but also by what is known about your online friends, such as their purchasing habits and credit scores.

Rapleaf is not the only company in this space, however, nor is the information of interest to marketers the only intelligence that can be gleaned from social networks. In September, the Boston Globe reported that MIT students had developed a method that could determine a male’s sexual orientation based on the gender and sexual orientation of his friends. In other words, even people who choose not to list their orientation on their Facebook profiles can be outed by SMM. Meanwhile, the spread of Facebook applications raises concerns: if a friend of yours adds a Facebook application to her profile, that application might not only see all of her profile information, it might also access information about you that you have made available to her.

In this environment, your privacy is increasingly being taken out of your hands and placed in the hands of your friends.

But, wait – don’t dump all of your Facebook friends just yet! If, in a moment of panic about all that information circulating about you online, you decide to abandon all those social networking services, this too could hurt your ability to obtain services and products offline. Jeff Liesendahl, CEO of Accertify, told in August that email addresses that are not associated with “an active, long-term social networker” are more likely to be “created by a criminal intent on committing fraud.” Not having a social network presence may be as harmful as having one. Companies, regulators and policy advocates are still sorting out the implications of the social networking phenomenon. However, one key, as CDT has been saying for some time, can be found in robust transparency and user control: Consumers should be able to easily discover what is being collected about them and how it is being used, and they should be able to easily control what is being shared. Google has gone perhaps the farthest so far, with its Ads Preferences controls and its Dashboard for registered users. Others offering some form of control include BlueKai and Exelate. Rapleaf provides consumers with the tools to opt-out of data collection by the company and to erase already-collected information.

The social networking trend also forces a re-examination of the question of what data is sensitive. Sensitive information has traditionally been defined in terms of Social Security number, medical, and financial information. Facebook’s defaults, for example, keep user contact information private but make their list of friends public. It is becoming increasingly apparent that online and offline, we are judged by the company we keep. Perhaps we should start living by a new version of an old adage: Keep your friends close and keep your friends with good credit scores closer.