Involuntary Networking: Why First Street is Fascinating but Scary

Most people are happy to share information about their relationships with other people through social networking sites, though in all normal cases this information is shared voluntarily. But a recent announcement by a Washington political publisher raises the possibility of someone, somewhere might one day assemble and share this kind of information without your knowledge and without your approval.

CQ Press is a political publisher that has for years published directories for congressional and federal staffs, relying on voluntary disclosures to collect information. Initially these directories were meant to provide only information on the present and then be discarded when each new edition came out.  One day someone at CQ realized the company was sitting on a mine of useful information and digitized all of the data from directories going back to the 1990s. Combined together, the content of these directories gave the company a completely new product -- the possibility to track relationships between staffers, lobbyists and others over the years.

This data is now available through a website called First Street which gives researchers powerful tools to plot relationships, to understand who knows who, who worked with who and so on.  This website is not free and at $3000 per license it is clearly not aimed at the general public. Customers already signed up include leading media outlets -- AP, NY Times, Washington Post. Political parties, lobbying organizations and others are likely to sign up, too.

First Street is an excellent example of how a company can generate revenues from what would previously have just been considered waste paper. CQ Press is lucky in that their service is not easy to replicate, their data is presumably protected by copyright law and it was all disclosed voluntarily by the people involved, so they have protection against claims of inaccuracy.

At the same time this web site is scary, Nobody minds very much as long as the people involved are unloved characters like political staffers and lobbyists.  But what if that were done to people like you and me?  All of the information provided to CQ Press was given voluntarily, but when information from many different sources or periods in combined in this way the result is something else that perhaps was not intended when the original forms were filled in. Perhaps nobody in the 1990s could even have imagined this kind of re-purposing of data.

Suppose that someone were to apply this kind of technique to publicly shared social network data, generating maps showing who we are really connected to through likes, comments, views and other information.  This kind of involuntary networking would not be hard to do with existing technology. It would not be popular with users, but the management at more than one social networking company has shown that they are essentially indifferent to what the users think. This leaves only the law to protect us. Let's hope that the laws are strong enough, or that someone will strengthen them.  And perhaps it will be our unloved friends in the First Street database who will be taking the lead on this project.


Related Posts on Networking:

How to Separate Work and Private Networking
Involuntary Networking: Why First Street is Fascinating but Scary
LinkedIn Etiquette: How to Approach People You Don't Know
Selling Your Ideas: Influencing Your Way to Success
Professional Networking: Five Sites You Should be Using
How to Use Twitter for Professional Networking
Sign Up Now: Joining New Networking Sites Boosts Your Reputation
Zerply: Three Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Sideways
Three Keys to Networking

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