Regular visitors to this blog will have seen Dominique Lazanski's warning earlier this week about the risks of businesses and employers "scraping" personal information you have uploaded to the internet.
With this in mind, Big Brother Watch has been alerted to the case of the 'scraping' of PatientLikeMe.com – a discussion forum for people with emotional disorders, "ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves". In the early hours of the morning on 7th May, website administrators observed "suspicious" activity on website, with copies of each of the messages on the website being copied in their entirety by a media-research firm representing the pharmaceutical industry.
Information about the opinions of the website's users where then forwarded to drug companies. While many users of the website posted their messages under pseudonyms, one user complained that information contained on his profile revealed his correct e-mail and blog addresses – something which could allow drug companies to identify him directly.
Despite the sensitive nature of its content – and their condemnation of companies who engage in "scraping" - PatientsLikeMe.com, the website from which the data as to views of patients was obtained, freely admits to selling anonymized information about the profile of its users to commercial clients for market research purposes.
Scraping, the Wall Street Journal confirms, is big business:
"The emerging business of web scraping provides some of the raw material for a rapidly expanding data economy. Marketers spent $7.8 billion on online and offline data in 2009, according to the New York management consulting firm Winterberry Group LLC. Spending on data from online sources is set to more than double, to $840 million in 2012 from $410 million in 2009.
"Scraping services range from dirt cheap to custom-built. Some outfits, such as 80Legs.com in Texas, will scrape a million Web pages for $101. One Utah company, screen-scraper.com, offers do-it-yourself scraping software for free. The top listening services can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor and analyze Web discussions.
"Nielsen BuzzMetrics, quickly became a leader in the field of social-media monitoring. It collects data from 130 million blogs, 8,000 message boards, Twitter and social networks. It sells services such as "ThreatTracker," which alerts a company if its brand is being discussed in a negative light"
In light of this case, Dominique's warning has become all the more prescient:
"The best advice for all of this is to be careful of what you put online. Only individuals are best placed to take control of what they share and when they share it. And you never know who is watching"
By Daniel Hamilton