How privacy vanishes online

Using bits of data from social-networking web sites, researchers have gleaned people’s names, ages, and even Social Security numbers, reports the New York Times—raising concerns that people are doling out too much personal information on the internet. Services like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr are oceans of personal minutiae, such as birthday greetings sent and received, school and work gossip, photos of family vacations, and movies watched. Computer scientists and policy experts say that such seemingly innocuous bits of self-revelation can increasingly be collected and reassembled by computers to help create a picture of a person’s identity, sometimes down to the Social Security number. “Technology has rendered the conventional definition of personally identifiable information obsolete,” said Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy division. “You can find out who an individual is without it.” So far, this type of powerful data mining, which relies on sophisticated statistical correlations, is mostly in the realm of university researchers, not identity thieves and marketers. But the FTC is worried that rules to protect privacy have not kept up with technology. The agency is convening the third of three workshops on the issue on March 17…

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