The risks of exposure from social networking sites

September 10, 2007

Rapleaf, a privately held start-up whose investors include Facebook-backer and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, is among a new generation of people search engines that take advantage of the troves of public data on the Net, and uses this information to create a composite profile by tracing a person's digital tracks across social networks, blogs, photo collections, news and e-commerce sites. The search engine currently lets users retrieve the name, age and social-network affiliations of anyone, as long as you have his or her e-mail address. Rapleaf has already amassed a database of 50 million profiles, which might include information about a person's age, birth date, physical address, alma mater, friends, favorite books and music, political affiliations, which social networks they frequent, what applications they've downloaded, as well as how long that person has been online.1

Rapleaf states that their goal is to make it more profitable to be ethical. They encourage users to lookup other people's Rapleaf reputation before transacting, interacting, or even hiring them.2

And Rapleaf may be onto something. According to a March 2007 survey by Ponemon Institute, 35 percent of hiring managers are using Google to do online background checks on job candidates, and 23 percent look people up on social networking sites. According to the survey, about one-third of those Web searches have lead to rejections. New college graduates, the most active social networkers, are most likely to be the target of Web research. For people who are new to a field, companies do not have an employment history to look back on. Since they cannot call up their former boss, they look them up on Facebook instead.3 (Facebook is becoming extremely popular, with its membership climbing in just four months from 24 million in May 2007 to 39 million today).4

The issue of secondary usage of information about individuals, is something that can perhaps be likened to air pollution, where small blots of contamination - in themselves relatively minor - eventually form into blankets of smog; contributing to a climate where private space, thoughts and choices are encroached upon and subtly eroded.5

1. "At Rapleaf, your personals are public", CNET, August 31, 2007

2. "About Rapleaf", Rapleaf, September 6, 2007

3. "Job candidates getting tripped up by Facebook", MSNBC, August 14, 2007

4. "Fears over security as Facebook makes profiles public", ITPro, September 5, 2007

5. "'Promiscuous' RFID a data threat, warns privacy watchdog", ComputerWorld, September 3, 2007