Friday, February 3, 2012

Lircles aren't a privacy tool. They're a noise reduction tool.

First, a definition. I use the word "lircle" (and have used it previously) to refer to a grouping system employed by online communications applications. Examples include Facebook's lists and Google+'s circles - hence the name "lircle."

Among other features, lircles allow you to post a message that is only seen by a particular group of people. For example, maybe you have a lircle for your family. Maybe you have a lircle for your co-workers. Or maybe you have a lircle for people who are part of your alliance for the online game Starfleet Commander.

One can argue that lircles are a privacy-enhancing tool. For example, I could post something to my Starfleet Commander lircle like this:

Hey, maybe we should coordinate an attack on Steeeeeeeeeelrod. If we all do it together, we may be able to bring him down. Who is available at 0600 GMT?

The idea is that if I only post this to my Starfleet Commander alliance lircle, then they will know about it and Steeelrod won't.

Well, if you're counting on lircles to provide you with privacy, please don't.

The Internet is a public medium, and there are any number of ways that your private message to your lircle could suddenly become public. Perhaps someone in my alliance is a traitor, and he/she just copies/pastes my message and sends it off to Steeelrod. Or perhaps Steeelrod has a friend who can hack into my lircle. Or perhaps some twelve year old somewhere is hacking into random places. Or maybe Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin is just about ready to conclude a deal to sell every bit of Facebook or Google data to Donald Trump.

In short, just because you only share something with a limited group of people, you can't assume that it will remain with that limited group of people.

So if lircles aren't good for privacy, then what are they good for?

One benefit of posting something to a lircle is that people outside of the lircle don't have to see it. The vast majority of people don't care about my doings in Starfleet Commander, so any mention of Steeelrod would just be noise to them. Posting to the lircle just reduces the noise.

As an example, let me reproduce a message that I posted to one of my lircles recently:

Last night I shredded the piece of paper that had my G number written on it. Luckily for me, I also have it written on a Post-it Note at work. (Post-it is a registered trademark of 3M.)

This particular message went to a lircle that includes co-workers, former co-workers, and a few customers. It did not go to my family, college friends, high school friends, people at my church, or fellow Starfleet Commander players (well, with two exceptions).

Even some of the people in the lircle who received the message probably didn't understand all of it. For example, former co-workers Stephanie and Lisa probably don't have any idea what a "G number" is, since it's an internal thing that was introduced at my company long after they left. However, since both Stephanie and Lisa previously worked for a large multinational corporation, they can probably guess what a G number is. Large multinational corporations like to set up things like G numbers.

But even if the people in the lircle don't know what a G number is, they certainly understand why I'd write the parenthetical statement that I did. And, since I'm now publicly blogging about this message, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission obligates me to let you in on the secret also. Disclosure time:


(Note to self: Some time I have to write about co-opetition. NEC and MorphoTrak use of Post-it notes is just the tip of the iceberg here.)

Now most of you who just finished reading the last few paragraphs are probably bored to tears. And I can assure you that if that particular item had been posted publicly, instead of to a limited lircle, most of the people who received the message would also have been bored to tears.

See how lircles can reduce noise?

You're welcome.

P.S. No, I'm not going to tell you my G number. It', private. Unless Post-it notes have super-secret RFID technology that beams their contents to Pasadena. Which could be dangerous, because that same Post-it note that includes my G number also includes some Starfleet Commander coordinates.
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