14 October 2010

Companies scrape your personal information from private forums

Are you aware that your posts in online forums -- even private, password-protected forums -- may be collected, deposited into a massive database, and even linked to you personally?  And these personally-identifiable data about you may be sold repeatedly, even used by prospective employers?  As this article from the Wall Street Journal reveals, there's an arms race between web site operators and data 'scrapers,' and our privacy is in the cross hairs.

The article is one of a WSJ series on digital privacy.  The special section may be found here.  Some articles are behind a pay wall; to view them, simple copy the headlines, paste into Google, and click the links back to the articles.   

It's not just your online behavior and identity that are tracked.  A recent study showed that 68% of popular free iPhone apps transmitted unique identifying data when launched, including the user's name, phone number, and even location.  Android apps did this, too.

Unfortunately it seems there's little we can do to protect our privacy.  We can attempt to keep our online personae completely separate from our real identities, but that's exceedingly difficult.  Another WSJ article details how to request your profile deletion from multiple databases, but this, too, is not a complete solution. 

Do you post information online that you would consider private?  Will this knowledge of 'scrapers' make you change your behavior?  Should we have an expectation of digital privacy, especially when posting in "private" forums?  Are these 'scrapers' any different than those who would tap a phone line to listen to your conversations (which is illegal)?  Should we ask Congress or the FCC to get in the middle of this debate, or will they just make matters worse?

Article excerpts after the jump.


At 1 a.m. on May 7, the website PatientsLikeMe.com noticed suspicious activity on its "Mood" discussion board. There, people exchange highly personal stories about their emotional disorders, ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves.

It was a break-in. A new member of the site, using sophisticated software, was "scraping," or copying, every single message off PatientsLikeMe's private online forums.

PatientsLikeMe managed to block and identify the intruder: Nielsen Co., the privately held New York media-research firm. Nielsen monitors online "buzz" for clients, including major drug makers, which buy data gleaned from the Web to get insight from consumers about their products, Nielsen says.
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PatientsLikeMe's president, Ben Heywood, disclosed the break-in to the site's 70,000 members in a blog post. He also reminded users that PatientsLikeMe also sells its data in an anonymous form, without attaching user's names to it. That sparked a lively debate on the site about the propriety of selling sensitive information. The company says most of the 350 responses to the blog post were supportive. But it says a total of 218 members quit.
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New York-based PeekYou LLC has applied for a patent for a method that, among other things, matches people's real names to the pseudonyms they use on blogs, Twitter and other social networks. PeekYou's people-search website offers records of about 250 million people, primarily in the U.S. and Canada.

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