New York

I-Team: ‘Creepy' NYC Law School Assignment Shows How Easy It Is to Find Strangers' Personal Info Just Using a Smartphone

"Having nothing to hide is one thing. But in this democracy we still have rights of privacy that I feel like a lot of us don’t really know," one student said. "It's kind of creepy."

What to Know

  • A lot of personal info, from work history to your body weight, parents' names and medical data, is easily found with simple search engines
  • A St. John's Law School assistant professor gave her students a peculiar assignment -- try to de-anonymize people using just phones + Google
  • Some of her students found the results startling; one who thought she had nothing to hide said the assignment changed her whole perspective

A bench in a bustling public park used to be one of the most private places in the world. There’s a certain anonymity in being just one face in a crowd of hundreds. 

But big data and social media companies are changing what it means to be a stranger among strangers. That's the lesson St. John's Law School students learned this semester when Assistant Professor Kate Klonick assigned a peculiar – if not creepy – homework assignment. 

“One of the ideas that I had -- to kind of teach some of my students how loose the norms are that protect a lot of our everyday privacy -- was to give them an experiment to try to de-anonymize people using only their smartphones and Google and things they could overhear loudly in public,” Klonick said. 

The results of the assignment were startling to some of Klonick’s students. 

“A lot of my students heard people list off medications they were taking, social security numbers, their home address, the expiration date of their credit cards, credit card numbers," Klonick said. " Everything that you could possibly have that you could steal someone’s identity.” 

Eavesdropping is nothing new, but the cataloguing of personal facts by big tech companies makes it easier to learn loads of information about strangers with a simple search engine. 

Overhear someone’s name or catch a glimpse of their work ID and now you’re likely to be able to find their address, details about their family, and much more. 

When the I-Team listened in on conversations at New York City’s Washington Square Park, we found people’s full work histories, parents’ names, even their body weight, medical information and birthdates. 

Some of that data was voluntarily shared on social media sites, but when it's all compiled -- and at the finger tips of a stranger -- it can have unintended consequences. 

Junie Hoang is proof of that. 

In 2011, Hoang, a Los Angeles-based actor, sued the website IMDb and its parent company Amazon after the site published her birthdate without her consent. 

"I had posted a birthdate years ago when I was in Texas and I thought it was harmless but once I moved to LA, I realized that it’s not harmless and it affects my ability to get work,” Hoang said. 

Courts ultimately upheld IMBd’s right to publish the birthdate, citing the website’s free speech protections, but Hoang says her battle to keep control of a simple personal fact -- her true birthdate -- demonstrates how privacy can be eroded by the accessibility of data on the internet. 

"Data is big business," Hoang said. "I think anytime data is aggregated, collected -- you think that it’s harmless but actually somebody is making money off of your information.” 

By one estimate, companies that scrape and sell people’s personal data - will rake in more than $200 billion in annual revenue by 2020. 

For those wishing to limit the availability of their personal information, there are a few options. 

Credit card companies offer annual privacy statements with a chance to opt-out of certain information-sharing. 

Representatives of big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Apple have touted their products' privacy settings, encouraging users to take control of who sees what information and what can be shared with third parties. 

They've also encouraged governments around the globe to design common rules to prevent a race to the bottom in terms of data privacy protections. 

Before taking Klonick's St. John's law class, Charnese Gulley was unconcerned by the wealth of information available about her on the web. She thought she had nothing to hide. 

Snooping on people in public changed her mind. 

“Having nothing to hide is one thing. But in this democracy we still have rights of privacy that I feel like a lot of us don’t really know," Gulley said. "It's kind of creepy."

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