Do “Regular” People Know They Are Living Life in Public?

The recent privacy flap surrounding Facebook got me thinking.  Exactly how much are we all sharing?  What can be learned from it?  And how much of any of this does the average person know or understand?

I decided to take myself as a case study.  I may not be the average user – and most of you who read this techie site probably aren’t either.  But, we all know and/or are related to the “average user”.  And that is the person who is in danger in this modern, tech-based, privacy-challenged world.  I feel as though I can kind of compare myself to the average user in a strange sort of way.  It goes like this: I write for this site and my own and, sometimes, for others, and because of that, I have a vested interest in being found.  I want my writing found and I want to share it.  In fact, I have made the conscious decision to be easily found.  Plus, I want feedback.  I want to communicate with everyone out there and crowd-source questions and discussions.  Hence, it may appear that I share everything, but, I understand what’s going on in this space.  I realize that everything I post, regardless of rather or not I mark it as private, can be, and probably will be at some point, public.  Terms of use change.  I take NOTHING for granted.  I share nothing that I wouldn’t want the whole world to know.

Just about everyone who can access the internet is using at least one of these services that I looked at (and there are many more I didn’t).  And the average user gives not a single thought to what they are telling whoever wants to look.  Mostly who is looking is advertisers – either directly or because the site in question is sharing.  There are more nefarious onlookers as well, but to be fair, that is rare and requires the site to have security hole.

I will start with the one service I considered for this piece that I don’t use – Foursquare.  I don’t use it because I live in the country and it seems rather pointless for me.  Although, I guess I could rack up the “mayor” spots!  But, if you live in a metro area you may be using it, and what better way to let your stalker know where you are and when?  Since I don’t have experience with it I’ll leave it at that.

Let’s look at two photo sharing sites – Flickr and Picasa.  I use Picasa, myself, but most of you probably use Flickr. They are pretty much interchangeable though.  Picasa has settings.  Flickr probably has similar.  You can decide to not allow the general public to see your pictures and you can block GPS data from the photos. Do most users know this?  Probably not.

I am probably in the minority in using Wakoopa.  In fact, some of you probably don’t even know what it is.  It’s a simple program that tracks what programs I use.  It even includes some Webware programs.  What’s the harm in that?  Well, we will get to those possibilities later.

Another seemingly innocuous program is Goodreads.  As with Wakoopa, I may be in the minority using it, but I would guess there are dedicated users out there as well.  This site performs the simple task of keeping track of, and sharing, the books you read.  Like Wakoopa, what could be the harm?

Do you listen to music?  Do you love Pandora as much as I do?  Or, maybe you’re into Slacker or Last FM.  Everyone knows that their Pandora playlists are shared thanks to Facebook, right?  Slacker and Last FM can’t be very far behind on that gravy train.

My phone’s GPS tracks me via Google Latitude.  This one seems secure – only people I okay can see my location.  In all seriousness, I do trust Google, and maybe it will be my downfall, but other than a couple of stupid lapses, they seem genuinely to be trying to keep all of their overwhelming amount of data about all of us in check.  But, don’t get too comfortable, because Google knows EVERYTHING.  If management changes we are all in for a rough ride.  They have it all – our profiles, our email, our RSS feeds, and, most of all, our searches.  And that’s not even counting our location (if you use Latitude) or our thoughts (if you use Buzz).  And if Google Me is real, well….

Then there’s Twitter (and I’ll include Buzz here since they are the same type of service).  The great thing about Twitter is that you KNOW everything is public.  It’s designed that way.  They do allow users to set their accounts to private, but I assume few do.  And, let’s face it, few are sharing anything private on here…right?  Well, except those who lost jobs for posting things about their bosses or the woman who was sued for libel after posting about her apartment problems.  How many other stories like these are out there?  Far too many to count I am sure.  Let’s face it.  Even a service that is outright public from the start lulls the average user into a false sense of privacy.  And, what’s more, you can (and I do) allow the Twitter feed to cross-post to Google Buzz and Facebook.  Now if I say something dumb it has the maximum chance of being heard by the most people possible.  And, let’s not forget that Twitter makes it easy to add photos and videos to every tweet with such third-party services as TwitPic and TwitVid.  Oh, and just to top it off, I can geo-tag my posts so everyone knows exactly where I am.

Finally, there’s the black hole of privacy known as Facebook.  They have changed their privacy settings several times and only once (and that’s debatable) did it favor the users.  Facebook has an interest in users sharing their data.  That’s how they make their money.  If your settings are all private then it is bad for their bottom line.  So, they have slowly opened their doors to allow more and more user data to become public.  And they have made their privacy settings harder for users to understand.  The biggest thing they have done was to make settings opt-out instead of opt-in.  They gamble on the average user not understanding all of this.  And, let’s face it, they’re right.  Sure, they made some news with all of this, and some people got up-in-arms over it, but, did the public-at-large really hear and really understand?  Probably not.

Now let’s see what we can learn about me from all of this data.  I don’t use Foursquare so my stalker will not be happy here, nor will the marketers who want to know the kind of businesses I frequent.  From Picasa they will see my pictures, and those are posted to Buzz as well, but they are marked as private so I win one here.  Wakoopa tells everyone what software I am using, which is great for the marketers, but probably useless for my stalker.  Similarly, Goodreads will let everyone know that I am just about done reading A Walk In The Woods, which is useful to marketers, but less so to my stalker.  The same for Pandora – great to know what I listen to if you want to sell to me, but not so much if you want to find me.  And then we come to the last three services I looked at, and those are the ones the stalker is interested in – Twitter, Buzz, and Facebook.  Here’s where you know where I am, where I am going and who I am with, complete with exact GPS coordinates.

Can you build a good profile for marketing or stalking?  I would say it’s very easy to do so.  And, almost everyone that each of us knows is using, at the very least, one of these services.  Worse, they don’t know what the default settings are, and even worse than that, probably don’t care because they don’t understand the implications of them.  Things are not improving on this horizon any time soon, either.  In fact, if Facebook is any indication, they will get worse.  Yes, it’s great to have all of these services and they are very useful.  But, we need to take the time to understand them and what they mean.  People have been hurt – women with real stalkers.  Nobody should have to suffer because of vague terms-of-service or the questionable practices of some site that is out to make a dollar off of unsuspecting users.