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Does your 'digital reflection' show your true self?

Developers of new software claims that it can reveal what you look like to others by analyzing your e-mail habits.
Developers of new software claims that it can reveal what you look like to others by analyzing your e-mail habits.
  • New software can reveal what your online habits and interactions say about you
  • By scanning emails it can show how fast you respond to certain people
  • The software is given a cautious welcome from privacy groups
  • It could help identify risks to online security, says a privacy analyst

(CNN) -- In mid-2010, managing your internet appearance means much more than just touching up your profile pictures on Facebook. New software is being developed to show you exactly how you seem to others.

"Increasingly we spend more of time day dealing with people online," Elizabeth Charnock, CEO of technology company Cataphora told CNN.

"But what many of us don't appreciate is that we behave differently over the internet to how we would face-to-face."

New software like Cataphora's freeware "Digital Mirror" is coming onto the market to help us gain an understanding of what we might look like to other people online.

While most of us are careful what we write in e-mails or post on message boards, Charnock says there are unsaid, invisible truths about our habits that are revealed when we read between the lines of our online activity.

People's first reaction when they see the results of their 'Digital Mirror' is disbelief.
--Elizabeth Charnock, CEO Cataphora technology company

"For example: how many people set their status on Skype to away, when they would never think about hanging a 'Do not disturb' sign on their door?" she says.

"As we increasingly experience people's digital selves -- more than their real-world selves -- all of this matters."

To date most of Cataphora's work has been assisting the forensic investigation associated with multi-million dollar fraud cases, and in developing software for HR departments.

But "Digital Mirror" marks a new direction reaching out towards individuals.

"The software focuses on the greatest asymmetry in relationships and shows you how long it takes me to get back to you versus you to me, Charnock says.

"Another feature focuses on buck passing, showing how often contacts shunt work on to others without offering any help."

One positive aspect of "Digital Mirror" is self-improvement, says Charnock.

"We make calculations based on a blend of different measures, including how many different topics people talk about -- are they work topics or personal topics?

"When people are in a bad mood, do they reach out to each other or avoid one another? That in particular is a great marker of social connections. Also, what time are the communications: during working hours, or at night? Or all the time?"

Predictably, being faced with hard, empirical data about your social world -- particularly if it contradicts what a user believes, or wants to believe -- can be difficult.

"If you're seeing a shrink, you might want to sit down and talk through the results," jokes Charnock. "People's first reaction when they see the results is often that it can't be true, I would never do that. Well you know what: you did."

At the moment "Digital Mirror" just scans e-mail, but future versions will do instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter. There are also plans for a multiplayer version that will allow users who have a lot of contacts in common to see how those contacts are behaving relative to each other.

Online privacy advocates have greeted the arrival of "Digital Mirror" with qualified approval.

"Any tool that gives internet users a glimpse into the risks arising from their own online behavior is likely to be valuable," Simon Davies, Director, Privacy International, told CNN.

"[But] we do have to be vigilant that such products do not turn into vigilante tools, able to spy on the behavior of other people," he added.

"There is a real risk that software products such as these in the future will use privacy protection as a justification for limitless intrusion into activities and communication involving innocent third parties, and that situation would be totally unacceptable."

Some idea of where this sort of technology could be heading emerged recently with a report in Wired magazine that the investment arm of the CIA, known as In-Q-Tel, and Google Ventures were both funding a start-up company that monitors the internet in real-time and uses that information to predict the future.

The firm in question, Recorded Future, produces software that parses tens of thousands of blogs, web pages and Twitter accounts to establish the links and relationships between people, organizations and events current and future.

One of the firm's aims seems to be to create real-time dossiers on particular individuals that will establish who is involved, with what, and how events might unfold. This will be based on the publicly available information available on all of us as we use the web to manage our social, political and business interests.

At the moment it is hard to say more about Recorded Future -- the firm doesn't give media interviews. Google will say little except that they and In-Q-Tel are involved with the start-up.

No one is saying the two groups are actively collaborating or merely sharing an interest, but the secrecy surrounding the reports has fueled much speculation.

"I'm curious about [it], but it's so shrouded in urban legend I'm not sure what's real and what's imaginary," says Davies.

Either way, perhaps its time we all took a bit of a closer look at what we do online and studied our digital reflection.


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