BitDepth 704 - November 03

Notes from a talk I gave to the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago about socialising on the Internet.
Socialising in an Internet age

Chris Harrison's intriguing map of city to city Internet connections across the globe gives some insight into the billions of data connections made every second on the web.

Two weeks ago, Nicolette Johnson, the President of the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago  was asking me solicitously as I walked into the room, "Are you sure you're okay?"
The source of her concern? The room full of whip smart young women, leaders of business today and tomorrow, gathered to hear how they should approach socialising on the Internet today.
I had no illusions. My co-presenter was Joannah Bharose, who would be talking about Internet dating, and I couldn't hope to match her expertise in what is, after all, a social engagement that requires some first hand experience.

Choosing to bat firmly within my crease, on the topic "Virtual Connections: Social Media for Work and Play," I advised the room full of women and the two men in attendance to be careful with their personal information online.
Why? Most folks misunderstand the way that data moves on the Internet and confuse social interactions on the web with their equivalents in the real world.
The popular notion of the Internet as an "information superhighway" reinforces that illusion, the idea that people are cruising along from site to site, sharing thoughts and little tidbits about themselves.
The web, of course, works exactly like that, except that it doesn't accelerating connectivity to a speed that's unimaginable to normal human perception.

This is what you should know about your presence on the Internet.

It's everywhere.
Every time you fill out a form, contribute to a forum, add a comment to a blog or respond to a survey, little tiny bits of identifying information begin to circulate around the web.
Tiny bits of code, the robot collectors of information known as 'spiders' and 'crawlers' continuously scour any publicly accessible node on the Internet to find and gather these seemingly useless bits of information to gather them into an often startlingly complete picture of you.

By way of explaining this to the no doubt disbelieving ladies of AFETT, I handed out eight small sheets of paper to people who claimed to know the President of the organisation, asking them to write three words about her based on their interactions.
In roughly three minutes, I had correlations on at least five words that could serve as a rough profile of Ms Johnson. The technologies commonplace on the web would have assembled a more thorough profile of her in less than a hundredth of the time using the same basic principles.

It's worth money.
The currency of the Internet is information, and personal information that can be used to target individuals is the gold standard. Websites like Plaxo and Linked In are based on the value of one-to-one connections and the trading of personal information. One of the best examples of this is Amazon, which tracks every purchase you make to create tempting lists of items that you might be interested in. The more you shop and choose products from those lists of recommendations; the smarter Amazon's computers are at tempting you. Wish lists, for instance, allow users to keep a helpful "buy" list with the online seller that also lets Amazon know exactly what you're interested in.

Exercise care.
There's little you can do about any of this, but it's possible to be more cautious that you may have been so far.
Consider creating an e-mail address to be used exclusively for your web interactions. If it's going to be harvested, it may as well be dispensable.
Severely limit your personal information when it's requested for online forms.
Consider using an alternate address, such as a skybox address when filling out online forms that you may consider suspicious but still wish to participate in.

Presenter notes from this talk are
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