As the course designer and instructor for an undergraduate social networks course at the University of Maine at Augusta, I am often asked why students should take the course. I think there are many answers to this question. One answer comes from a humanities standpoint: learning how to represent patterns in relationships with attention to meaningful visual cues can deepen understanding of design and lead to innovation in art. Culturally speaking, networks have geek appeal as sparkling and colorful objects lending panache to infographics. If critical thinking is important to you, you might be interested in network analysis for the challenge of mastering multidimensionality and matrix mathematics; as you work at network puzzles you’ll develop your logical and quantitative reasoning ability. But these appeal aren’t all: the study of social networks can be practically useful, too.
One practical use of social network analysis is highlighted by the Disconnect extension you can add to your Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Opera internet browser…
… so as I was saying, the Disconnect extension available for most internet browsers makes use of social network analysis to share useful information about websites that let your data leak out to third parties:
If you install the Disconnect extension in your browser, then visit a website, it will create a network graph (or “sociogram”) with that website at the center, visually linked to other websites that are given data whenever you visit that site. By bringing those network graphs together for different websites, you can figure out how your personal information might be combined and how that combination might be harmful to you.
That might sound a little abstract, so let me make it concrete. Consider the mini-industry on the internet of “Print-On-Demand” apparel. On websites like CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened, you can browse through thousands of t-shirt designs made up by people like you. If you find a design you like, you can put it on a t-shirt that fits your style, order that shirt, and have it printed up and sent specially to you. The printer gets a cut of the profits, the designer gets a cut of the profits, and you get just the shirt you want.
While these print-on-demand services are offering you a service that makes them a little money, are they harvesting your data on the sly? To find out, I activated the Disconnect extension in my browser and visited the CafePress, Zazzle and Skreened websites. Disconnect produced three sociograms, which I combine to form the network graph you see below:
The above image is current as of February 2014, and represents an change in tracking since the last time I looked at these websites in December of 2012:
There are a number of patterns to notice. Consistently and by a wide margin, CafePress has been sending information about you to the largest number of third-party websites. Over time, on the other hand, Skreened and Zazzle (to a lesser extent) have started to catch up, sending more information about you to other companies. Those companies include Lucky Orange (“We don’t just tell you who is on your site, we show you what they are doing”), Monetate (“helping you understand your customers’ situations, behaviors and preferences”), Retention Science (“analyze & predict customer behaviors”), and Tell Apart (“If you’ve ever clicked on an ad for a pair of shoes that seem like they were made for you, Tell Apart may very well have been responsible“).
When the practices of individual websites such as CafePress, Skreened and Zazzle are combined into a network, we can find points of overlap. CafePress and Skreened send their information to three websites in common: doubleclick.net, google-analytics.com, and googleadservices.com. Each of these services tracks users by IP address, so that your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened can be combined: these data mining companies can bring together your behavior at CafePress and your behavior at Skreened to figure out aspects of your identity and preferences that might not be apparent if they had access to only one of the websites. All three websites send data to googleadservices.com, leading to even more detailed insights about you. Would you be surprised to find out that doubleclick.net also receives information about visitors from nytimes.com, foxnews.com and amazon.com? Would it surprise you to know that doubleclick.net is owned by Google, bringing this overlap into even sharper focus?
Looking at simple lists of the third-party recipients of your information on a website can give you a rough sense of how leaky an individual website is. Looking at the network overlap in recipients tells you which of those recipients are likely to be learning the most about you, constructing an increasingly accurate virtual you for sale.