WTF is LinkedIn doing with my data?

LinkedIn appears to know who I’m communicating with on Gmail. I’d like to know why.

Social networks are like overeager party hostesses. They’re always trying to introduce you to new people, even if all you want to do is stand in the corner and wolf down hors d’oeuvres.

But sometimes social nets get too pushy and start making connections they really shouldn’t be able to make, in ways that can be startling and even disturbing.

Case in point: A few weeks ago I logged into LinkedIn and saw it was recommending I connect with someone who was, at that very moment, staying in a rental property of mine.

linkedin-jbb rec-600p.png

Let’s call my renter Jennifer, since that’s her first name. Jennifer and I connected via Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) and conducted our business entirely via Gmail and PayPal. We did not know each other before this transaction, nor do we really know each other now. We have never met nor spoken. We do not work in the same industry, we have no friends in common and no social media connections.

The only things we share are that we both live in the same state, we exchanged emails, and she rented a place from me. And yet, there she was, number one on the LinkedIn recommendations page, the same day she moved into my condo.

How the hell did that happen?

I have never imported my Gmail contacts into LinkedIn. Until LinkedIn recommended we connect, I had never looked at her LI profile, nor she at mine. (When she did, she found LI had recommended me to her, but on page 5 of the People You May Know list.)

And while LinkedIn often recommends strangers to me, there’s usually some connection due to industry affiliation or shared contacts. None of that applies here.

The only explanation I can come up with is that LinkedIn algorithms are grabbing information from other sites and/or apps, possibly via tracking cookies. This would of course be in violation of LinkedIn’s privacy policy. 

I politely asked LinkedIn if they could explain. They said no. Per a spokesperson:

As with many companies that rely on algorithms to deliver relevant suggestions to its members, we don’t share too many details for obvious reasons. What I can tell you is that we use a variety of data points -- including but not limited to mutual connections and profile views, among others -- to make relevant suggestions. I also want to note that any data that we use is completely consistent with our privacy policy.

I talked to the guy who invented People You May Know when he worked at LinkedIn six years ago. He also declined to discuss the company’s algorithms with me.

I asked a couple of data wonks. Mostly they suggested stuff I’d already thought of and rejected. Dylan Valade, creative and strategy director for Pine Lake Design, thought Google was the most likely culprit, if for no other reason than the enormous cache of data it collects via analytics and ad networks.

But he also suggested it could be a third-party tracking company:

My suspicion is that LinkedIn is partnered with a third party who is aggregating the relationships like yours that took place outside of LinkedIn's servers….

If you posted a listing on VRBO and Jennifer looked at the same listing, it is reasonable to conclude that either VRBO or a third party was tracking both of your activities separately and then sold that connection opportunity to LinkedIn.

I asked VRBO. Their chief privacy officer, Arndt Soret, denied sharing any information with LinkedIn.

I am still waiting for a response from Google. (If I get one, I’ll update this post.) I seriously doubt Google shares the names of people in my inbox with LinkedIn. Ironically, though, G+ did recommend I connect with the LinkedIn spokesfolk I emailed my questions to.

That’s acceptable to me, because it’s all within the Google bubble. I expect Google Plus to know who is in my Gmail address book. I don’t expect LinkedIn to know that unless I tell them (and I didn't).

The fact is there could be any number of ways in which LinkedIn or any other Web site could “know” there was a connection between two people, even if neither of them shared it with that site. And that just ain’t right.

So now I’m asking you, my faithful readers. How do you think LinkedIn made a connection it should not have been able to make? What nefarious technology is at work here?

(FYI, in case you are wondering, WTF in this headline stands for “what the frak.” Or as my teenage daughter likes to claim, “welcome to fairyland.”)

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynan_on_tech. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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