Hasn’t every one of us has done things in the past that we regret? Sometimes, a person’s digital trail is purely harmful in the hands of others.
Traditionally Internet companies like Google and Facebook have based their business on the personal information that users willingly pile into the service. The more information there is, the more users can browse the information of other users and the service provider can do a better job at targeting ads.
Attending to the flow of willingly shared user information is perhaps the most critical element for any of these businesses. For example, Facebook saw Instagram as threat to its flow of user photos, and acquired the company of ten employees for about one billion dollars in April 2012.
But is there also business for information that might get users into trouble later if it gets into the wrong hands?
History seems to be repeating itself now in 2013, as the photo messaging app Snapchat has been rumored to have rejected about $3Bn bids from both Facebook and Google.
But wait a second – Snapchat does not accumulate information like Instagram does. In fact, its distinctive feature is based on not storing information: the messages (or ‘Snaps’) disappear in about 10 seconds. Does Snapchat simply offer an interesting feature to fill users’ need for ‘more privacy’, or is there a bigger strategic picture?
In traditional sense, the information that users collect within a service is a valuable and ‘sticky’ resource for both the user and the service provider. But what if some aspects of a person’s digital trail are purely harmful in the hands of others, but just as ‘sticky’ as your other online content? There are at least three lines of business in this space of ‘anti-resources’:
The damage prevention business
The damage prevention business operates in the space where you wish to ‘preview’ some information to recipients, but not leave a permanent trace. This is the business in which Snapchat is in – as your party photos fade away in the hands of a limited few, they are less likely to ruin your future political career – just think about what happened to Anthony Weiner on Twitter.
Even better, you parents are using an ancient and ad-filled service like Facebook, so there is little change that they would see your Snaps even by accident. Several ‘cheater’ dating sites have also entered the damage prevention business – and users seem to be flocking.
The obfuscation business
What if the damage is already done – a less flattering photo has leaked out somewhere on the Internet? Not being ‘tagged’ in the photo will no longer save you, because having your name associated with a photo once does the same for all photos thanks to facial recognition (interestingly, Google is not taking up this opportunity – perhaps in fear of a privacy outcry).
But wait: you receive an email from a business that claims it has found an unimpressive picture of you and offers to help. The firm promises to artificially generate a photo that matches your embarrassing photo better than you yourself do – at least in the eyes of facial recognition algorithms. The email promises to create a social media profile for this fake person. If you are a celebrity, this will probably not help you, but if not, you have just prevented a less representative photo of yourself appearing on the first page when somebody searches the Internet with your name. We can call this ‘obfuscation as-a-service’.
The insurance business i.e. the business of mutual annihilation
If embarrassing content is out – but not yet in the public, you may try to discourage your adversary from doing harm to you. It has traditionally been the business of private detectives and other shady players to dig out information to balance the table. But what are your alternatives in the Snapchat world? Without moving outright cybercrime, it remains perfectly legal to hack yourself – i.e. install software that records everything that your computing device shows and plays, and archive it for your own purposes.
In the era of Snapchat, perhaps this is what parents of wannabe politicians should advise their kids to do from the beginning, as telling them not to reveal photos on chap apps and social media is doomed to fail?
By the end of the day, nothing beats a good insurance.