Google algorithms use public usernames to link profiles

My CBC tech column this week is about new research from the French National Institute of Computer Science that looks at how using the same public usernames across multiple websites could lead to unwanted online profiling. The point of the research was to demonstrate that username profiling techniques are possible.

Well, now they’re out in the wild, on a large scale. Just this morning, Google announced some changes to its Social Search features, including username-linking:

if our algorithms find a public account that might be yours (for example, because the usernames are the same), we may invite you to connect your accounts right on the search results page and in your Google Account settings.

Google’s offering is optional, but it’s not hard to see how this technique could be used to link your online profiles without your consent. As I said in the column, “bad news for ‘EngelbertHumperdinck1936,’ but good news for anyone named John Smith.”