VANCOUVER – How easy is it to use social media to find out what people are doing, without them realizing they are being watched? It took me less than two minutes to not only identify where
a randomly chosen 16-yearold girl lives, goes to school and hangs out with friends, but also to pinpoint within three houses where she babysits. And when she’s home alone with the kids.
From the Google Street View of those houses, it’s a fair guess she is at the one with all the toys in the yard.
I learned she plays soccer, is in French immersion, and is probably a skier or snowboarder if the resort where she spent Spring Break is any indication. I can probably correctly identify where she went to elementary school. I know what she looks like, and I can recognize her friends. And once I know where she lives, it’s not a big stretch to guess her parents’ identity.
Creepy? Yes. Hard to do? No. Just ask Karl Swannie, founder of Victoria technology start-up EchoSec, a company that has created a search engine that mines close to 500 data feeds, including social media networks and open data from governments and the private sector – the search engine I used to randomly pick out a traveller at the Vancouver airport to see how much I could learn from their digital trail.
If it hadn’t been for EchoSec aggregating everything posted from a location in a single search, it would have been difficult to pick out the teen’s single Twitter post from millions of others. What sets EchoSec apart from other search technology is its ability to “geo-fence” – that is, to draw a virtual line around a building or an area, and to tap into all the publicly available data from that location. That means not only social media feeds but open data that could include everything from live webcam feeds to government information.
“It definitely opened my eyes,” said Swannie. “There’s a level of education that has to happen out there. People have to be aware that (their digital postings are) permanent, it’s public. This is definitely a new way to visualize the data.”
The public version of Echo-Sec’s search technology that I was using has only a handful of feeds. The full version will have close to 500 sources of information that can deliver everything from the risky to the risqué.
The ability to track kids by targeting a school building worried Swannie so much that he disabled the software that made it easy to track an individual. Not that someone still couldn’t do it themselves, though.
And he is warning police, governments, companies and even military organizations that they should be aware information is being shared that is timestamped, traceable, and can be “mined, followed and predicted.”
Freely available Swannie’s company stumbled across its discovery by accident while it was working on a search engine to help urban planners determine how people use public spaces. But the information its search engine taps is freely available, and anyone with the time, the inclination and the tech talent could create similar tracking tools.
Source: By Gillian Shaw, Vancouver Sun