What Foxmarks Knows about Everyone

I recently installed Foxmarks, a Firefox extension that automatically synchronizes your web bookmarks across all the computers you might use. Refreshingly, the developers got it right: the plug-in is idiot-simple and works flawlessly.

This is accomplished through a central server, which means a lot of bandwidth, hardware, reliability costs, etc. In short, it’s not a completely cheap service to provide. As there is no advertising either in the plug-in or on the site (yet?) I began to wonder how they planned to pay for all this. I found my answer on their About Us page:

We are hard at work analyzing over 300 million bookmarks managed by our systems to help users discover sites that are useful to them. By combining algorithmic search with community knowledge-sharing and the wisdom of crowds, our goal is to connect users with relevant content.

Of course.

There is a lesson here: knowledge of something about about someone is fundamentally different than knowledge of something about everyone. As with Google, Amazon, or really any very large database of information over millions of users, there are extremely valuable patterns that only occur between people. The idea is as old as filing, but the web takes this to a whole new level, especially if you can convince huge numbers of people to voluntarily give up their information.

So far, I haven’t said anything new. What I am suggesting is a shift in thinking. Rather than being concerned primarily about our individual privacy rights when we fill out a form full of personal details, perhaps we should be pondering what powers we are handing over by letting a private entity see these large-scale intra-individual patterns — patterns that they can choose to hide from everyone else’s view, naturally.

I am beginning to wonder very seriously about the growing disparity between public and private data-mining capability. Is this an acceptable concentration of power? What effects does this have on a society?

One thought on “What Foxmarks Knows about Everyone”

  1. Sure the amount of consumer trend awareness that is generated by databases like google and amazon are immense but are they really a danger to individual privacy? The algorithms will improve and search results and product suggestions will get even more accurate and targeted.

    This gets into what is a meaningful expectation of privacy. The concepts of searching and online commerce are fairly new aspects of society, and I don’t know if we really should expect privacy with our commerce transactions.

    Think of how it used to be in the past with small general stores. The store owners would recognize the costumer and sometimes even have their normal purchases all boxed up and ready. This was never considered an invasion of privacy, and it is rather similar to what amazon does now.

    As to search, there really isn’t a good pre-internet analog. The closest one might come would be libraries, but that only covers a small aspect of the internet. In any case, like google, the librarians know the people who come in and know the kinds of books that people who come to the library are interested in. It’s their job and while some may view this knowledge of reading habits as an invasion of privacy, it does improve the ability of the library to serve the public.

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