Friends don’t share data about friends

Ashley Madison is a website that facilitates extra-marital affairs. When hackers stole their customer database and threatened to post it online, the heady mix of sex, scandal and cyber spawned a thousand column inches.

Yesterday the hackers made good on their threat and released the data. “Cheat check” sites appeared online within a few hours. Panicking punters, suspicious spouses and junior journalists spent the day tapping in every email address they can remember: their own, their partners’, their families’ and those of public figures.

If you’re a member of Ashley Madison and you want to check whether you’re a victim, the Have I Been Pwned service has your back.

To everyone else: submitting personal data about other people to third-party websites without their permission makes you a bad person. I don’t care if it’s data about your partners, your colleagues, your family, your idols or your representatives. You should feel bad and you should stop doing it. Friends don’t share data about friends.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas knew a thing or two about discretion. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas knew a thing or two about discretion. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Consider what the site owner could do with your submissions. They could notify the people you’re looking up that they’re being looked up. They might publish a list of the email addresses being checked for the most. They could sell the new addresses you submit to spammers or fraudsters, who might pay top dollar for a hand-crafted list of people marketed as having jealous, suspicious or dissatisfied partners – themes that might start haunting your contacts’ inboxes even if that wasn’t the reason you were checking. They might also target some addresses you give them for doxxing or hacking – especially if they were previously unpublished and appear to be owned by high-profile people, or the domains look interesting.

Sites indexing the Ashley Madison data are unlikely to be running metadata and traffic analyses on groups of emails submitted in quick succession from the same IP, nor are they likely to be inspecting the degree of overlap between these groups, or cross-referencing them with other data-sources to de-anonymise you. Yet. They might sell such metadata to data brokers, though, who will launder it and sell it on to social networks. The networks could then identify you via your connections, if enough of the addresses you submitted in a group are associated with your friends’ profiles, then maybe you’d start seeing more adverts for spyware (to keep tabs on your spouse), divorce lawyers or dating sites in your feeds.

It’s obviously stupid to submit people’s real email-addresses to a brand new website, registered in Albania a few hours earlier, and run by people with questionable ethics. People can be even more thoughtless with other people’s data in circumstances that seem more benign though.

When you sign up for Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, you’re nagged to upload your entire contacts list, either by giving them the password to your email account(!), or by letting their app grep your phone’s address book. The benefit you’re offered is automation: you will be connected effortlessly to people you know already. What you’re also doing is giving the company the personal data of everyone with whom you’ve ever corresponded.

When you upload a photo, the network highlights the faces of the people in it, and you’re asked to tag them with their identities – if the network hasn’t done that for you automatically. If you don’t comply, the faces are scanned anyway, and the data filed away for future use. When you attend an event or arrive at a location you’re encouraged to tell the network who you’re with. When you read a news article you’re asked if you want to email it to a friend – by giving the publisher their email address, of course, and not via your own client.

Stop and think again, but this time instead of considering what these companies could do with the data you’re giving them, reflect on how you’re treating the subjects of that data. You’re acting without their knowledge, let alone their consent, thereby denying them control and therefore denying them privacy. You’re failing to respect them as people and you’re being selfish: thinking only about your convenience not the impact on others.

If you want to share information about someone else there’s a simple rule you can follow to avoid grief: ask them first. Even if that means having an awkward conversation with your spouse.

Or maybe sometimes you’re just better off not knowing.

4 thoughts on “Friends don’t share data about friends

  1. “giving them the password to your email account”

    WTF? That wouldn’t just give them your contacts list, that would give them *every single email you’ve exchanged (sent or received)* with anyone. People don’t actually do that, do they?

    • I’m afraid they do. It’s not a new thing, either. Here’s a good rant about Yelp doing it from 2008. What’s more, companies lie to you about which of your friends have consented, as they know you’re more likely to comply if you think your peers did. I’ve experienced this personally on Facebook. Two friends of mine were shocked when I told them it was telling me they’d surrendered their email passwords to persuade me to do likewise. TL;DR: people think mostly about how thinks might work, not about how they might fail.

      • Actually, I’ve been thinking about today, and people use Gmail, so… yeah, basically, you’ve already lost. Even if you personally use GPG for everything, the metadata in every email you send to or receive from anyone with a Gmail account (or email hosted by any other invasive, privacy destroying, alien horror from they beyond^W^W^W^W^Wsocial network) is already out there.

        I dunno, doing what I can to maintain some privacy on the internet seems increasingly like an exercise in futility. If I can’t actually stop the tentacled monstrosities from knowing everything about me anyway, would it really make my life practically worse at all if I just stopped trying, and gave in to convenience?

        Not that I will. I think I’ll keep fighting my own corner (and donating to ORG). Even if I sometimes find it hard to remember or explain why, I can pretty much keep it up out of habit, and it would seem like a shame to break that after all the work I’ve put into it.

        • Yikes. That’ll be me sleeping with the light on and the router unplugged tonight, then o_O.

          I think Jennifer Granick gave a great response to this feeling of futility in her Blackhat keynote. Yes, the internet dream is dying, but no we shouldn’t throw our hands up in despair and upload our DNA to LinkedSoftTwitGooBookSpace. We need to create the alternatives.

          It’s possible to build tools that are convenient and respect our privacy. Efforts such as TextSecure / Signal show these can offer great UXs and gain traction too. (Privacy-preserving contact discovery is hard, though).

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