Rapleaf and privacy

by Henry Farrell on September 6, 2007

This “ZDNet article”:http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9588_22-6205716.html on datascraping firm Rapleaf is both interesting and disturbing.

In the cozy Facebook social network, it’s easy to have a sense of privacy among friends and business acquaintances. But sites like Rapleaf will quickly jar you awake: Everything you say or do on a social network could be fair game to sell to marketers. … By collecting these e-mail addresses, Rapleaf has already amassed a database of 50 million profiles, which might include a person’s age, birth date, physical address, alma mater, friends, favorite books and music, political affiliations, as well as how long that person has been online, which social networks he frequents, and what applications he’s downloaded. … All of this information could come in handy for Rapleaf’s third business, TrustFuse, which sells data (but not e-mail addresses) to marketers so they can better target customers, according to TrustFuse’s Web site. As of Friday afternoon, the sites of Rapleaf and Upscoop had no visible link to TrustFuse, but TrustFuse’s privacy policy mentions that the two companies are wholly owned subsidiaries of TrustFuse.

… In other words, Rapleaf sweeps up all the publicly available but sometimes hard-to-get information it can find about you on the Web, via social networks, other sites and, soon to be added, blogs. … Apart from the unusual TrustFuse business, Rapleaf is among a new generation of people search engines that take advantage of the troves of public data on the Net–much of which consumers happily post for public perusal on social-networking sites and personal blogs. The search engines trace a person’s digital tracks across these social networks, blogs, photo collections, news and e-commerce sites, to create a composite profile. … There doesn’t appear to be anything illegal about what these companies are doing. No one’s sifting through garbage cans or peeking through windows. They’ve merely found a clever way to aggregate the heaps of personal information that can be found on the Internet. … Just ask Dana Todd … “It’s my growing horror that everyone can see my Amazon Wish List. At least I didn’t have a book like ‘How to get rid of herpes’ on there, but now I have to go through and seriously clean my wish list,” she said.

This raises all sorts of interesting issues for privacy, going way beyond the dumb-teenager-spliff-smoking-photo-on-MySpace kind of story that get most public attention. If I’m understanding the article correctly, Rapleaf have figured out ways to get at some information from social networking sites that the users of these sites mightn’t have wanted to share with the outside world. This isn’t illegal, but it is fishy. Also, by aggregating together information about people’s networks and tastes across a variety of different websites and networking sites, it’s likely that the firm can draw non-obvious connections that people would prefer not to be drawn. US privacy law is notoriously patchy (your video rental records are heavily protected, thanks to efforts to embarrass conservative Supreme Court nominees, your sensitive financial information … not so much), but I’m not sure what kinds of policies would effectively protect those people who wanted to protected from this kind of widescale data trawling, even in more privacy friendly jurisdictions like the EU. That said, I’m personally quite creeped out by this kind of thing (albeit not creeped out enough to stop blogging or to withdraw my profile from social networking sites, for whatever good that would do me at this stage).

Sally Haslanger on Women in Philosophy

by Harry on September 6, 2007

This may come as a surprise to some readers, but all I know about nightclubs I have picked up from watching Knocked Up (thanks Rebecca) and reading Tom Slee’s excellent No-One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart (I’d go further, and claim, shocking as it may be, that no reader of CT has less direct experience of night clubs than I do). From what Slee says (and Apatow confirms) bouncers think of themselves as creating the very good to which they are controlling access. What people want is to be around a high enough proportion of good-looking/cool/well-dressed/female/young/sophisticated-seeming-but-ultimately-dull-witted people, and the club provides that good only if the bouncers admit a high enough proportion of such people.

I was reminded of this when I read this excellent paper by Sally Haslanger about the position of women in Philosophy Departments (via Leiter). I’m going to resist the temptation to summarise for two reasons: one is that all faculty members in Philosophy Departments should read the whole thing and carefully, the other is that I don’t want any misimpressions caused by my summary to influence subsequent discussion. Read it.

Why was I put in mind of the little I know about night-clubs?

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Wikipedia at 2 million

by John Q on September 6, 2007

Sometime around next Sunday, Wikipedia will reach 2 million articles. It’s about eighteen months since the millionth article was added, and the number of new articles has stabilized at around 2000 per day. So the shift from exponential to linear growth (in article numbers at least) has taken place a bit sooner than I expected. Some disorganised thoughts follow.

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