New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks. And it could harness advances in internet technology - specifically the forthcoming "semantic web" championed by the web standards organisation W3C - to combine data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals.Link to story.
UPDATE: Janet Daly of W3C says:
The New Scientist article is correct in describing what Semantic Web technologies are and how they work. However, the accuracies are outweighed the failures of the article.[Her rebuttal continues after the jump.]
It failed to note that all technologies which serve to let people share information - from the early days of electronic communications tools to today - get used by people who want information. Those people can be searching for individual purposes, or on behalf of companies, or governments. And they are searching and finding, today.
In simpler terms; anyone blogging today should consider whether they want a prospective employer or a potential date to read their posts. Why? Because the posts are being found. They're on the Web.
The writer also failed to note that W3C has worked for many years in the area of privacy, and on developing technologies that help individuals decide what information they are willing to share with Web sites, for example.
Not only is there nothing inherent in W3C semantic technologies for nefarious activities, there is a history of work that reflects the social impact of technologies, in terms of collaborative and sharing activities as well as access control and privacy concerns.
Finally, the reporter strung bits of information in such a way that it can cause a panic. There is no evidence, for example, that the NSA is in fact searching MySpace using Semantic Web technologies or anything else. Is it possible? Sure. But many things are possible when information is widely available.
What I hope the article stimulates is a discussion of how people choose the information they wish to share on the Web, and what measures they would like to take to protect information they prefer not to share broadly.
Readers who wish to learn more about the W3C's Semantic Web activity should visit the Web site, where they can find papers and contact information.