Conversations with fascinating people are, in my opinion, the best part of tech conferences. I haven’t even been at SXSWi 24 hours and have already hashed over: whether human-assisted tagging and metadata can be classified as semantic technology; the increasingly casual attitude we’ve all adopted toward our passwords; what it will take to interest the VC community in green technology (ahem); and, perhaps most importantly, how many breakfast tacos one has to ingest before complete diet integration is achieved. As a Texas native, I’m not a good judge of the last issue, as we begin eating breakfast tacos at birth. But a piece by Marshall Kirkpatrick today, along with an unpleasant experience with Spokeo two days ago, prompted me to tackle the password issue.
Frankly, I’ve become so used to giving my Gmail password to any social service that requests it, I don’t give it a second thought anymore. So when I decided to try out Spokeo in comparison to FriendFeed, I freely gave up my password thinking it would respond as expected: find some friends already using the site and prompt me to invite in others. Instead, it began trolling the Internet for all 500+ contacts I have in Gmail – including people I contacted once or twice on Craigslist – – and telling me of their detailed activity online. It felt invasive and downright creepy. Even worse, it contacted some of those people (not sure how it determines which people) and told them that someone was digging for info on them online, so they should 1) change their privacy settings on those sites and 2) sign up for Spokeo. (Not sure I grasp their messaging there. If everyone changes their privacy settings, Spokeo’s user base disappears.)
My friend Kelly, a super-smart developer in semantics, was one of those who received this email. We were discussing it last night and he made an excellent point that should be foremost these days and which I applaud Marshall for bringing up: a dangerously lax attitude towards our passwords is beginning to take hold in the industry and important initiatives like Data Portability and OpenID should be receiving much more support and attention. With lifestreaming taking hold – I’ll write soon about a hot company launching here, Socialthing – users and innovators alike need to keep the password issue top-of-mind. In the manic development atmosphere that has arisen around communities and social networks, the issues of privacy and security have taken a bit of a backseat. As a new era of all-updates, all-the-time is ushered in, we need to bring it back to the fore.
**Note: I haven’t talked with Spokeo yet for their side of the story and will post their side once that conversation occurs.