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When What You Had for Lunch Comes Back To Bite You: A Social Media Experiment

This week here in the office, a number of folks sent us a link to a video-gone-viral of a social media experiment. Maybe you’ve seen it. The host, Jack Vale, wanted to know “how easy it would be to get personal information from complete strangers.” He did so by searching for public social media posts by using his own location, then identifying the posters in real life.

Pretty simple stuff. And, it turns out, getting their personal information was very easy … in a creepy way

The reactions are interesting, particularly the unidentified gentleman, who at the end, indignantly exclaims, “Thanks for invading our privacy. I’ll call the police if you do that again.”

His obvious lack of knowledge of privacy law aside, the nervous laughter and comments by the others about the creepiness and trippiness of the experience demonstrates what seems to be a common disconnect between our online and offline lives.

Perhaps YouTube commenter IzzardUK says it best: “Posting your name and details publicly and then accusing someone who looks at it of invading your privacy is kinda fundamentally not understanding the Internet.”

Sure, no one with locked-down privacy settings finds themselves in this video, but, clearly, none of the folks in the video thought to do that. The context surrounding their innocent, but public, posts changed dramatically when a stranger came along to demonstrate how broadly they were sharing otherwise private information intended only for family and friends.

If they were truly creeped out, hopefully Mr. Vale’s experiment served an educational purpose. I wonder if any of the folks in the video actually stopped using social media altogether.

Which could serve as a valuable lesson for some businesses.

As has been evident in comments made earlier this week by Google Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf and today by IAPP VP of Research Omer Tene, social behavior is in flux in this digital age (whether you think privacy is an anomaly or not). As society works through these changes brought on by technology, social media and the collision of online and offline worlds, it may be good for businesses to think about how they can educate their customers on how to protect their privacy along the way. It could help tone down the creepy factor in general, while establishing a strong line of trust between business and consumer.

Surprise minimization works both ways. Yes, it’s good policy to reduce the amount of times your customers are surprised by the way their data is being used, but good education might also stop you from being surprised at what creeps them out.

Written By

Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/E, CIPP/US


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  • Geoff Nov 22, 2013

    What's creepy is that he can search for somebody nearby. How? Maybe I'm technology-ignorant here, but how can your mobile device tell you where a stranger is, even if they post to FB or something. And I thought people had stopped using 4Square for just this reason.
  • JMM0425 Nov 25, 2013

    Beauty of Location Services being set to enabled for any Smartphone User!
  • Jacksie Nov 25, 2013

    ... and I was just reading a post from a headhunter who says it's very important to post your entire resume on social media so the headhunter can tell if you are worth pursuing or not.
    Never mind that it also lays open your entire life to anyone with an internet connection.  I wouldn't go around nailing my resume to every tree in town either, much less one that reaches every human with an internet connection.  Too risky.
  • Jacksie Nov 25, 2013

    ... and PS -- there's the problem of blurring different parts of your life that don't have anything to do with each other.  Facebook is the prime example of this -- I had a FB page when they first came out, putting up stuff about my business and its services ... only to find one day that half of what was being posted on my page was from a high school classmate running the next class reunion and all the silliness that entails.  Cognitive dissonance to say the least.  Any effort made at a professional appearance online was completely blown.  I killed the FB account and will not go back to it ever.  
  • Jedidiah Bracy Nov 25, 2013

    Geoff, a lot of folks still forget, or don't realize, their privacy controls are set to public--often because that's the default setting. So, if you're in a given place, you can search for hashtags or other tags in a given social network to see what people (posting publicly) are doing. Definitely creepy. 
    Jacksie, you should check out the work of Prof. Woodrow Hartzog. I've written about his work in the past. He supports online obfuscation and the use of pseudonyms, among other things. Pretty cool stuff. Here's the post, which includes a video of his presentation at our Navigate event from last summer. https://www.privacyassociation.org/privacy_perspectives/post/making_the_case_for_online_obscurity_and_less_anonymitywait_huh 
  • Grady Mar 5, 2014

    I would definitely say it creeps me out that a total stranger could get that kind of information about me


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