Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Tis a tangled web we weave in our online lives

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Kim Dotcom. Photo / APN
Kim Dotcom. Photo / APN

It is not just what you choose to say or not say online that counts, it is what can be deduced from micro-units of information when it is all mooshed up together. So, I wonder how poor Kim Dotcom is feeling this week.

Last week I wrote about my relationship break-up. But things are looking up. I know I walked out of a trauma workshop because I was crying too much, but that goes with the territory. And then I went to a debate about privacy, and it made me think, "Jeez DHC, did you really need to tell everyone about your own psychodramas? Couldn't you just bung up your emotional incontinence for once?"

The problem is all the secondary benefits you get from oversharing. Everyone has been so super duper nice to me this week; I may even have talked more people into buying tickets to our school bingo evening because they felt sorry for me. I wonder if Kim Dotcom is also finding people are talking to him with their best bedside manner voice? Or I wonder if, like me, he feels like a bit of a shit.

Oversharing is essentially bogus; a form of emotional cheating. Because we reveal the things which will make people feel kindly towards us; not the stuff about drowning kittens. We are not trustworthy sources. It is part of the reason that the notion we can control what we put out there on the internet about ourselves is a crock. We are saying things about ourselves, but it is what we are not saying, but what we are doing that is really problematic.

This is a fast evolving area. Last week, the European Court of Justice ruled that Google search results should comply with the individual's right to be forgotten. So that means Google is working out a mechanism for punters to request that links to information about them be removed from the company's search engine. Woohoo!

This sounds like a victory if you worry about sinister aspects of big data. But, given I chose to tell the world about when I lost my virginity and my predilection for older men, do we even know where to draw the boundaries of your own privacy? And isn't just hand-flapping to try anyway, when the truly insidious breaches of privacy are not what we choose to say but the secret conclusions which mathematicians can draw when they put together all your granules of online activity.

Forbes magazine famously wrote about a case where retailer Target sent a flyer to a 15-year-old girl with advertisements and coupons for baby bottles and diapers and cribs two weeks before she told her parents she was pregnant.

Yes, her parents were not best pleased. Turns out Target uses the purchase history for hundreds of thousands of customers and can compute what they call a pregnancy score, which is not just whether or not a woman's pregnant, but what her due date is, based on all sorts of, by themselves, trivial blips of data, like whether she has bought more vitamins.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences in the US did a piece of research that used Facebook likes to predict all sorts of personal attributes including sexual orientation, political views, traits, intelligence and drug use. Intelligent people like curly fries, apparently. So it is not just what you choose to say or not say online that counts, it is what can be deduced from micro-units of information when it is all mooshed up together.

And we as users can't control this stuff. Computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck has admitted she could start a company that, based on your public online activity, predicts things like how well you work in teams and if you're a drug user or if you're an alcoholic. She could sell those reports to big businesses that want to hire you and you would have absolutely no control over her using your data like that. That seems more of a problem to me.

Golbeck's suggestion is that we need mechanisms that can say to a user, "Here's the risk of that action you just took". By liking that Facebook page, or by sharing this piece of personal information, you've now improved her ability to predict whether or not you're using drugs or whether or not you get along well in the workplace. Until we get that natty device, we can't really control what others know about us. But I have to go. I must let Dotcom know I have a shelf of the best divorce books he might find handy.

- NZ Herald

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