Return of the Guru

As Social Media Sites Mature, New Privacy Concerns Emerge

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, December 13, 2010

A not uncommon complaint about Facebook and other social media sites is that the sites promote unauthorized connections between members or between members and outsiders—all with the goal of increasing the number of members and the usage of the sites.  I know this happens, because it happened to me—with Facebook extending “friendship” invitations to individuals without my knowledge or permission. 

How Facebook happened to pick these potential friends—spyware, data mining, sheer guessing—is not clear.  What is clear, however, is that even small scraps of personal information may be used to help make connections that hungry social media purveyors then try to use to their advantage. 

In a recent example, Science News reports that Cornell University computer scientists found that, comparing the locations of photos posted on the Internet with social network contacts, as few as three "co-locations" for images at different times and places could predict with high probability that two people posting photos were socially connected.

The results have implications for online privacy, the researchers acknowledge.  Clearly these implications also apply to the financial services arena, where knowing that wealthy individuals were connected with, say, a certain insurance company, could pose a security risk to the individuals. 

"Inferring Social Ties from Geographic Coincidences," is reported online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to Science News, the researchers used a database of some 38 million photos uploaded to the Flickr photo-sharing website by about a half million people. The time and place where photos were taken was provided by GPS-equipped cameras or by people who used Flickr's online-interface to indicate the location on a map. Anyone can read this information from a Flickr page.

The article added that Flickr also offers a social networking service, and computer analysis showed that when two people posted photos several times from the same locations (often famous landmarks) and at about the same times, this was a good predictor that those people would have a social network link.

Maybe you’re thinking that this is a minor problem, but if a criminal wants to find out more about a high profile target—either human or corporate—being able to identify individuals who know the target could provide the needed access. 

“It's surprising—and not in a reassuring way—that so much information comes from so little,” says Jon Kleinberg, one of the Cornell professors who conducted the study. “You go through life and leave all sorts of records. You're conveying information you deliberately wrote but also conveying broader information. Our research is trying to provide a way of quantifying these risks.” 

“While it's obvious that a photo you post online reveals information about what is pictured in the photo, what is less obvious is that as you post multiple photos you are probably revealing information which may not be pictured anywhere," another researcher adds. 

The point is that computers are continuously improving their ability to extract or to accurately speculate on information that could or should be private.  Social media sites are replete with such information, images aside.  Insurers, on the other hand, cannot afford to dip their toes in such waters, and should be highly reluctant to utilize such sites for their commerce where even the most innocent-seeming information could be used for nefarious purposes.

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

Comments (0)

Be the first to comment on this post using the section below.

Add Your Comments...

Already Registered?

If you have already registered to Insurance Networking News, please use the form below to login. When completed you will immeditely be directed to post a comment.

Forgot your password?

Not Registered?

You must be registered to post a comment. Click here to register.

Blog Archive

Avoiding the Bermuda Triangle of Data

Handled poorly, questions around data ownership, data quality and data security can sidetrack big data conversations and alienate business stakeholders.

Global Supply Chain, Local Problem

As a technology provider, your client’s ability to deliver products and services to their customers, when and where they need them, is at the heart of their business success.

Legacy Systems Are Increasingly a Competitive Handicap

Legacy systems, while reliable, increasingly hold insurers back, a new study finds

Five Reasons to Software-Define Your Operations

It may be possible to provision key services with the click of a mouse, but benefits go well beyond that.

3 Policy Admin Conversion Considerations

Insurers would be wise to learn these lessons before formulating a strategy to convert policies to a new policy administration system.

From Her to Watson, and What’s Next?

Imagine a learning system that can replace the performance of your best employee to provide the same level of support across the organization.