Harnessing Digital footprints: The dark side of Web 2.0 – 01 May 2009 was the day I lost faith in Web 2.0(hopefully we don’t make the same mistakes with Mobile Web 2.0 and respect privacy)

Laetoli footprints.JPG

01 May 2009 was the day I lost faith in Web 2.0

But first, lets flashback to many years before .. 3.6 million years ago to be exact. I have an amateur interest in anthropology and the oldest human footprints found date back to about 3.6 million years ago at Laetoli, Tanzania.

The ancient human beings who left those footprints would not have known that 3.6 million years later, we modern humans, would analyse them, photograph them, categorise them and draw new insights from those footprints about the people who created them.

Not so with Digital footprints ..

Hardly as those Digital footprints are created, there are a host of online companies analysing the cookie crumbs and immediately creating new insights(to be used for commercial reasons)

Web 2.0 formalised this principle through the idea of ‘harnessing collective intelligence’, which is the root principle of Web 2.0 as I said a while ago in a blog Tim O’ Reilly’s seven principles of web 2.0 make a lot more sense if you change the order

So, harnessing collective intelligence is the key idea behind web 2.0

This is not a problem in itself

The dark side however arises if you entice people to give up their digital footprint, collect their digital footprint without their agreement, charge people to view their own data .. and then sell OUR data off and make a pile of money on it

That’s what happened on May 1 2009, when a company called Spock was acquired by Intelius ( a background check company) – and Mike Arrington rightly raises some concerns about this.

Flashback to less than a million years now (i.e. 2007) and you see the hype around the launch of Spock by none other than Tim o Reilly. In Why I am so excited about Spock, Tim says ..

The spock robot automatically creates tags for any person it finds (and it gathers information on people from Wikipedia, social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook), but it also lets users add tags of their own, and vote existing tags up or down to strengthen the associations between people and topics. Users can also identify relationships between people (friend, co-worker, etc.), upload pictures, and provide other types of information. This is definitely a site that will get better as more people use it — one of my key tests for Web 2.0. It also illustrates the heart of a new development paradigm: using programs to populate a database, and people to improve it.

So, let me see if I get this right

a) Spock trawls the web looking for our data

b) It creates a profile about us in their site without approval

c) It encourages us to enrich that information

d) It charges us to access our own information

e) And ultimately .. it sells that same information to a background check company ..

For instance, my ‘harnessed’ profile (i.e. I did not create it) says .. Ajit Jaokar is an Indian-born British author and Web 2.0 specialist. He is the founder and CEO of the publishing company Futuretext. He is also the… and the rest you have to pay for :) (Don’t bother .. that information is freely available on my blog .. and lots more .. so you can hopefully make your own judgements about me .. )

Can I delete my own information in Spock?.. Now it gets MUCH more interesting .. Spock says on deletion of information ..

If you’d like to remove yourself from Spock, please read the following information and click the link below.

Before requesting removal, please make sure the original source of the information Spock found for you has been removed or made private (MySpace, blog, Friendster, etc). This will prevent you from being re-indexed on the site. Please note that you can only request removal for your Spock search result.

When filling out your information please make sure to include your name, e-mail, a link to your Spock Search Result (i.e. http://www.spock.com/Tiger-Woods), and the reason why you’d like to be removed. The Spock Support Team will review your claim and get back to you within 24-48 hours.

So, I have to ensure that the Original sources of information that they got the profiles from should also be made private(i.e. my blog, my facebook profile etc etc) ..(else they will ‘harness’ me again!)

And Tim O Reilly was excited about this!!

This is the Web 2.0 equivalent of harvesting email addresses and selling them on!

Let me end this on an optimistic note ..

The use of user generated data to create a better service is a good thing ..

Web 2.0 may not have a business model in itself but rather in the enhancement of services(much like Amazon does). This is OK

There needs to be some form of legal protection for citizens from companies who engage in predatory practices.

There needs to be some form of ‘empowerment of the consumer’ on the lines of VRM

And we need to protect privacy with Mobile Web 2.0 and not make the same mistakes.

By Mobile Web 2.0, I mean the concept of extending the idea of harnessing collective intelligence to mobile devices(which are more attuned to capturing data along with the accompanying metadata)

So, to conclude .. Web 2.0 as we know it suffered a serious lack of confidence(in my view) on May 1, 2009.

The principles are sound. The business model is not. More responsible companies will come from this and will use the principles to create better services(and will use the web and the mobile holistically). These may not be ‘free’ – hence not ‘web 2.0′ in the traditional sense. Users may be wiser and more empowered(and I support legal intervention since most people are not aware of the intricacies of the problems)

I think we can learn from this and hope that the same mistakes will not be made as we build up Mobile Web 2.0

PS: If you are interested in the Laetoli footprints see this PBS link including a video

Image source: Columbia University


  1. saran says:

    when businesses are rapidly investigating their possibilities for future products and services, marketing practices may be further enabled through extensive consumer profiling based on shopping and travel patterns.it is important that “location privacy” implications be considered.
    providers now can continuously track the location of a user. from positive side, Mobile apps can offer (based on loation)
    * Destination guides where maps, directions and other information can be adjusted based on user location
    * Environment condition ex, weather/traffic reports
    * Advertising/coupons/offers to potential customers in real time when they approach storefronts
    * local search
    * Roadside assistance
    This tracking may allow unauthorized access and cause serious consequences. for ex, This tracking may allow improper disclosure thus may place a person in physical danger

  2. Stop N Text says:

    How would they harness your personal details on mobile web 2.0 ? That’s a big question you left unanswered