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Analysis: Why social networking sites threaten security

Welcome to the weird world of zero privacy

We look at how the social networks that broadcast your location to the web, such as Twitter, Google Buzz and Facebook, are creating 'social insecurity'.

Social networks that broadcast your location to others, such as Google Buzz, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare were recently cited as a potential factor in rising insurance premiums.

Wait, what?

Initially this may sound like a load of rubbish, but a joke website called 'Please Rob Me' has raised an ugly but obvious truth about location-based mobile social networking: When you tell the public where you are, you're also telling burglars you're not at home.

The site originally displayed a real-time stream of Twitter and Foursquare posts that might interest criminals.

Twitter has since pulled the plug, apparently, and now all Please Rob Me posts are from Foursquare.

Each post begins with the user's name, followed by 'left home and checked in' followed by an exact address of where the person is.

Insurance industry watchers like the one quoted in our story predict that after customers get burgaled and file claims on stolen property, the insurance companies will probably investigate to see whether the customer broadcast information over social networks in a way that constitutes 'negligence'.

They could also make 'social networker' the homeowners insurance equivalent of 'chain smoker' in health insurance - a category of customers who are charged higher premiums.

In my 'Inside Google' blog, I wrote a detailed post titled 'How to rob somebody using Google Buzz'. My point was that even though Twitter and Foursquare can expose users to crimes, Google Buzz is even more compromising.

In a nutshell, using Google Buzz's mobile location feature, in combination with Google Profiles and other free internet-based services, crooks can quickly find out who you are, where you are, what you look like, where you live, and when you'll be home.

Scam artists can trawl for suckers, then grab all the information they need for their scam.

This is bad news for Google in the wake of its already problematic Buzz rollout.

When Buzz first hit, users were automatically 'followed' to a list of people they emailed most often.

Unless users were savvy enough to change the privacy settings on Google Profiles, which most Gmail users probably didn't even know existed, their lists of most-frequent contacts was made public.

Doctors and lawyers had patients' and clients' identities revealed. Personal contacts were exposed to employers. Mistakes were made. Google apologised and fixed the problem, but not in time to stop a class-action lawsuit.

It's easy to pick on Google, because its services are so popular and because Buzz is so new.

But the truth is that Buzz is just one small part of the new 'social insecurity'. We've innovated our way into a strange new world of privacy compromise and confusion.

NEXT PAGE: Why you can't know how much privacy you have

  1. Welcome to the weird new world of zero privacy
  2. Why you can't know how much privacy you have
  3. Five weird new ways your privacy can be violated

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