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When Sites Drag the Unwitting Across the Web

Can an online algorithm track down your child?

In some cases, yes — and if you’re a parent, it could alarm you too.

Woman using laptop in internet cafe
Howard Kingsnorth | Photodisc | Getty Images
Woman using laptop in internet cafe

Consider the case of Maggie Leifer McGary, mother, blogger and social media fan. Ms. McGary is on virtually every existing social network: Foursquare, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook. She is also on Klout, a popular site that assigns you a score based on its analysis of how influential you are on the social Web.

In the days just before Halloween, Ms. McGary got the fright of her life when she checked her Klout profile. Hovering above her score were the faces and names of those over whom she had influence, as calculated by Klout. They included her 13-year-old son, Matthew.

The boy had never set up a Klout page for himself; he was only her Facebook “friend,” so she could monitor his interactions there. Klout had automatically created a page for him and assigned him a score. Then Ms. McGary’s 15-year-old daughter Mimi popped up on her Klout page — this time not with a Klout score of her own, just a nudge to Ms. McGary to invite Mimi to join.

“It freaked me out because these are my kids,” said Ms. McGary, 43, who lives in a suburb of Washington and handles social media for an association of health-care professionals. “It’s wrong. They shouldn’t be marketing to children.”

Klout says it does not. And since this brouhaha, Klout no longer creates profiles automatically, of minors or anyone else, and every Klout user can now delete a profile entirely.

The Klout kerfuffle is a parable of what can happen when you have an active digital social life. Not only do you leave your own digital footprints everywhere, but you can also drag your online friends with you from site to site, even if they have no interest in going there.

Klout culls information about individuals from publicly available sources: posts and followers on Twitter, engagement on Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare and so on. It lifts information from 13 separate networks in all, its chief executive, Joe Fernandez, explained, and rates you based on how “people engage with the content you create.”

For a brief period in late October, when Ms. McGary saw Matthew pop up on her Klout page, Klout’s algorithms created scores for the Facebook friends of registered Klout users. “Let’s say you and I were friends on Facebook, and I had commented on your Facebook wall,” Mr. Fernandez said. “Klout would see that, and I would get a score from my post on your wall.”

Outcry followed. Klout turned off that feature. Mr. Fernandez said his algorithms were not so smart that they could figure out who among your network of friends was a child or an adult.

Ms. McGary’s realization was part of a storm that blew through the blogosphere. It started when a few people started to see their Klout scores rise and fall and — what else? — began posting on Twitter about it.

In Montauk, N.Y., Tonia Ries clicked on her Klout page one morning to check out what the fuss was about. She too noticed her son, Timothy Carson, pop up on her page, with a Klout score assigned to him and a link to his Facebook page. Mr. Carson, 21 and a college student, told his mother that he had not signed up for Klout.

“How did Klout get the information to create a profile on my son???” Ms. Ries wrote that day on her site, The Realtime Report, which, as luck would have it, tracks social media trends.

She soon figured it out. Not long before, her son had posted on her Facebook page about taking their family dog to the veterinarian. That post, Ms. Ries realized belatedly, was visible to the general public. And she had linked to her Facebook page on Klout.

Ms. Ries told her readers: “I have unlinked my Facebook account, and I suggest you do the same.”

Five days later, Klout announced it would allow users to delete their profiles. And days after that, the company said it would no longer create Klout scores automatically for the Facebook friends of its registered users.

Facebook said it was investigating whether Klout had broken its terms of service in harvesting information from its site. Klout says it did not. Much of a Facebook user’s personal information — name, sex, profile photo — is public information, and so too are pictures, comments and other posts that are marked as publicly visible, with a stark globe icon.

Klout, like a host of other influence yardsticks in the digital marketplace, like PeerIndex and Kred, is used by marketers to reach habitual comment makers who are likely to promote their products on social networks. It can be used by employers, teachers, homecoming queen committees — anyone — to gauge someone’s popularity.

Ms. Ries’s Klout score went up sharply after she wrote a blog post about her experience and posted a link to it on Twitter. It also prompted her to reflect on the unintended consequences of her very active social network life.

“I engage, I participate publicly. I view anything I post as fair game,” she said the other day on the phone. “The big lesson I learned, and the new area I started thinking about much more heavily, is that my activity on a social network to a great extent exposes everyone I am connected to.”

Her son, she says, is vigilant about tweaking his privacy settings. But there are others in her online circles, she argued, who are less careful, and who may be largely unaware of how they are pulled across the Web from one service to another just because they are connected to her on Facebook.

“People need to be aware — if you’re active on social networks, you’re bringing your social graph with you, and that includes your friends and family,” she said.

Ms. McGary accepts that her children live in an age dominated by social networks. Like many other parents, she helped Matthew, her son, lie about his age to register for a Facebook account before he turned 13. She hectors her children not to divulge personal information like phone numbers online. She keeps tabs on them on Facebook. She takes pains to not reveal information like their school on location services like Foursquare.

When she told her son that he had been assigned a Klout score, it prompted an aptly adolescent response. He wanted to know how popular he was, and what freebies he might get.

“ ‘What’s my score? How many points do I need to get stuff?’ ” she said he had asked her.

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