Generational Views On Privacy, Facebook, and Geo-Tagging: Who Owns Our Personal Information?


An article from Private WiFi’s CEO, Kent Lawson, raised interesting points about online privacy attitudes among younger people.

The article presented some interesting thoughts from Ella Hickson, a young playwright.

Ella notes she is more aware of the value of privacy and puts forth the idea that most of the younger generation thinks in terms of an “inner circle of friends” and “our public self.”

She further relates that we want this public self or persona out there “on billboards,” and that the whole point of this carefully constructed and controlled persona is that “it is seen.”

As she noted in the piece:

“I think the kind of ‘all hanging out there’ that we see on social networking sites, etc., is more duplicitous than it seems. The things that we have total access to are, of course, highly controlled by those that are putting it there for the most part. Very rarely is anything being posted ‘about’ someone that they aren’t posting themselves.”

I can’t disagree with Ella, and find her comments very insightful. Most postings on social networking sites are carefully controlled by the person who “owns” the page. We can think of this persona as our billboard where we advertise the self we want people to see, and what they get to see is very definitely filtered by what we want them to know about us. She is absolutely correct in that we don’t put our dirty laundry on Facebook, just the “good stuff.”

Where I see a flaw in her outlook on privacy is in a lack of knowledge about how many different types of exploits are used to trap personal information, both for “legitimate” marketing purposes, and by those who wish to do us harm.

It should be remembered that in regarding social media sites, we users are their income stream, not their customers. Their customers are the many entities that want to access our information for sales and marketing purposes. Mobile apps and social networking apps and games want access to our user information for a marketing reason.

And, many of those who would do us harm are very bright and capable, and find many ways to “social engineer” or otherwise exploit our public presence to gain information that is then used to harm us.

Preventing Online Crime

Stalking, identity theft, scams, and other criminal acts all succeed best when the perpetrator has knowledge of his or her intended victim. The fact that the information the criminal started with was our public information does not make it any less useful.

As an example, about a year ago I spent a few hours investigating geo-tagging,” which is where a cellphone or smartphone takes a photo and embeds the GPS location information directly in the image file. Most current phones with cameras have this ability, and each device may or may not be configured to geo-tag each photo.

Having read about this, I was curious to find out whether photos posted to Facebook would have the information, and whether it was difficult to use. I downloaded about 20 photos from a variety of friends’ Facebook pages. Most did not have the embedded location information, but four of them did.

Using that information and Google Maps, I was able in a few seconds to see the location, and even zoom in and look at the home involved.

That’s more than a little scary — that’s a great tool for a Facebook stalker.

The point I am making is not specific to this one type of exploit, but rather that we should all be very careful about having a complacent attitude regarding our privacy and security. Certainly there is a lot of our personal information “out there in the cloud,” and being used by a large variety of companies with which we have dealings.

But there is a significant area of “privacy responsibility” that resides directly with each individual. In that context, it is a really good idea for all of us, including twenty-something young adults, to also pay close attention to our public persona.

Ask anyone who has been denied a job because of party pictures shared publicly; that is not identity theft, per se, but it certainly can have an impact. The point is that collecting a variety of information about an individual is a fairly powerful way to build an identity profile, and what you publicly post is certainly a great starting point.


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Rex Davis

Rex Davis is the Director of Operations at the Identity Theft Resource Center. He has spent the last five years with the ITRC and his area of expertise is Information Security. Creating public awareness of identity theft and cyber security risks is his passion.

2 Responses

  1. Scott Rodriguez says:

    Thank you for towing the line…

    • Susana says:

      Good news: The rule at the request of Members of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission is deilyang enforcement of the “Red Flags” Rule until June 1, 2010, for financial institutions and creditors subject to enforcement by the FTC.

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