This Man Knows What You Did Five Minutes Ago

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This energetic young man is Tom Scott, making an entertaining presentation at Ignite London a few weeks ago, and very cleverly opening everyone’s eyes to the issues surrounding online privacy. Or the lack of it.

For those of you unable to watch the video, in it Tom pulls live data from the internet in real time, plucking personal information from a bunch of ordinary folk who haven’t thought about what they publish. By the end, he’s phoning a total stranger (in front of a live audience) and leaving a message summarising what he thinks he knows about the guy’s life.

It’s funny, it’s amazing, it’s also rather thought-provoking. If Tom can do what he does in five minutes, live on stage, just for fun – imagine what a less trustworthy individual might do with five days, working in secret, and for nefarious purposes?

Techland got hold of Tom today and asked: what was he trying to prove?

“I wasn’t really trying to prove anything,” he said. “I was just trying to entertain people for five minutes! If I’ve managed that, then I’m happy with how it turned out.”

So does he have any advice for Facebook users?

“My advice is the same as Facebook’s: take the time to understand and check your privacy settings. Despite the media fuss surrounding Facebook, the site has excellent options for both privacy and security – but if you’ve set everything to ‘public’ then they’ll respect that choice.”

What about users of other services? Are we sharing too much? Or just not sharing it sensibly?

“Social networks are complicated enough that the Law of Unintended Consequences applies. Adding your family details on Facebook seems innocent, and setting a limited amount of your profile to public also seems safe. Put them together, though, and there’s a decent chance that you’re revealing your mother’s maiden name to the world. (Your mother’s maiden name shouldn’t be a security token – but that’s another, separate issue!)

“It’s the same with linking Foursquare to Twitter: old-school prank-callers The Phone Losers of America have been calling up people at restaurants for a year or so now, taking advantage of the fact that it’s easy to forget what you’re broadcasting and how far you’re broadcasting it.

“If you’d like to share everything, that’s up to you. There are a few people who’ve streamed video of their entire life to the internet, at least for a while! It’s worth spending a little while thinking about what you’re sharing, and who you’re sharing it with.”

“I should point out that, despite the call I made on stage, I don’t condone malicious prank calls. I didn’t know who was going to appear on screen – but a few minutes before I went on stage, someone checked that I wasn’t about to call anyone under 18, anyone in the middle of something stressful or traumatic, or anyone who appeared likely to react badly to the phone call.”

People keep saying privacy’s dead – what’s your view?

“Privacy is changing, certainly – but then it always has, ever since Hawley Crippen was caught by telegram a century ago. I don’t think it’s dead – not yet. Let’s not forget that there are billions of people in the world who don’t have running water, let alone internet access or a Facebook account.”