Now that any and every modicum of privacy on the Internet seems to have vanished, we might as well start spying on ourselves, right? So if you want to get a leg up on the NSA, a new project from MIT's Media lab will help get you started.
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Developed by Cesar Hidalgo, Daniel Smilknov and Deepak Jagdish, Immersion is a new online platform that asks permission to access your Gmail account. Once you voluntarily submit your address and password, every email in your account is scanned and metadata is collected to create a portrait of your network. What evolves is a map of interconnected lines and color-coded circles of various size that show how closely related your 100 most-contacted people are in your mailbox.
The project does not access the subject or body of emails, only the From, To, Cc and Timestamp fields. And don't worry, it has a kill switch. Upon logging out of Immersion, users are given a choice to save or delete data.
But why would anyone willingly submit to this invasion of privacy? According to Immersion's website, there are four answers.
"It's about self-reflection, art, privacy and strategy," the project's creators write. "It's about providing users with a number of different perspectives by leveraging on the fact that the Web, and emails, are now an important part of our past."
In case you're looking for a more exhaustive answer, the researchers are quick to elaborate:
Just like a cubist painting, Immersion presents users with a number of different perspectives of their email data. It provides a tool for self-reflection at a time where the zeitgeist is one of self-promotion. It provides an artistic representation that exists only in the presence of the visitor. It helps explore privacy by showing users data that they have already shared with others. Finally, it presents users wanting to be more strategic with their professional interactions, with a map to plan more effectively who they connect with.
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Hidalgo told the Boston Globe, seeing his email metadata mapped out for the first time was an emotional, out-of-body experience.
"You start realizing that, eventually, you are not interacting with people, you're interacting with webs of people," he said. "Because all the people you've interacted with, they're actually connected in tens or maybe hundreds of indirect paths between them. They exist in your absence. So that out-of-body experience, I've found that it was very powerful."
Credit: Jacob Goldstein/NPR, Immersion