OK, that's a horrible headline but it is very appropriate for this post, you'll see.
A little over a week ago Google launched a new social networking tool, Google Buzz. It claims to allow users to “Share updates, photos, videos, and more. Start conversations about the things you find interesting.”
There were many security and privacy issues surrounding the initial implementation of Buzz but I did not see anyone writing about the issue I will explain here.
Buzz is “Geo-aware” in that it can include optional data about the location of a person posting to Buzz. So on the first day Buzz was launched I fired it up on the Droid and searched the map near my residence for other “Buzzers.” There was not a whole lot of activity near me but there was some. I live in a fairly small city so It didn’t surprise me that on the first day there were only three or four people using Buzz near me.
I saw a Buzz that was created just a few blocks from me by someone that I did not know. It simply read “Google Buzz is fun!” I agreed with him so I commented below and wrote “Yes, it is fun, I think I like it.” And then I went about my business.
The small, benign comment I left on that user’s Buzz was public and for all to see. And I had agreed to show my location and attach it to this Buzz. My little Buzz comment was sitting there for all to read. Cool. Harmless. All is good. At least that’s what I had thought.
Over the next few days other people made comments on that Buzz and I was notified via Gmail when those new comments were entered. After about 4 or 5 comments were made I went back to that original buzz where I saw other comments similar to mine. “Fun”, “Cool!”, “just getting the hang of it but I’ll keep trying” one user wrote.
And then I looked at the first post in the Buzz. The post that I initially commented on. The one that initially read “Google Buzz is fun!” now read “KILLING BABIES IS FUN!!” WHAT?!?!? “KILLING BABIES IS FUN!!”??? I nearly spit my mouthful of coffee out onto the computer screen.
My mind scrambled as I tried to figure out what happened. Why did I leave a comment on a Buzz about how fun it was to kill babies? Did I really respond with “Yes, it is fun, I think I like it.”? No way! I love babies. But there it was for everyone to see. My neighbors, my relatives, even the Police could now see that I was a baby killer sympathizer.
Well, I immediately deleted my comment on that Buzz. Phew OK, any damage that was done has already been done but at least going forward no one else will see my baby killing comment. Luckily this story has a happy ending but it could easily have not ended so well. I am not a prominent official or someone of any public importance so I do not have any type of public image to protect. Of course, other than what my friends, family and neighbors think of me. Imagine what this type of thing could do to someone’s career.
So what happened? Easy, the user that posted the original harmless sounding Buzz, “Google Buzz is fun!”, had gone back days later and edited his Buzz. After many people had left harmless comments about his harmless Buzz he changed the text to read “KILLING BABIES IS FUN!!” and turned all of us who commented on this Buzz into baby killer allies. Into monsters. Our comments went from harmless to harmful with the click of a mouse and no casual observer would know this.
So be careful, this scenario could play out in many different ways. And I guess it’s not limited to happening with Buzz. It could happen on any blog post or forum post as well. It’s just that this was on a map where anyone could see where I lived. I didn’t mind including my location when it was attached to the original Buzz but I sure did mind when it was attached to the edited version.
Maybe Buzz should send us an email when the original text of a Buzz has changed? Maybe they do now, who knows? But what I do know is that in the future I am going to be much more conservative as to what I will comment on in Buzz. And very, VERY conservative as to what posts/comments I am willing to share my location.
Be very cautious, it’s a new World with new dangers.
EDIT: As my friend Daryl pointed out in the comments below, Facebook got this functionality right. Users should not be able to edit a Buzz, they should only be able to delete it. Or at the very least, we should be able to view an edit history.