The Latvians have invaded LinkedIn. Can the NSA be far behind?

In the new surveillance state, who you know -- or somebody thinks you know -- is more important than who you are.

Unlike most sane people, I spend a lot of time fretting over LinkedIn. More specifically, I think about LinkedIn’s People You May Know feature. How does LinkedIn know I may know these people? What do my alleged connections say about me? And just where is LinkedIn getting its information? I have deep suspicions, but no proof.

Lately, though, things have taken a turn for the absurd. Looking at my endlessly scrolling list of People You May Know, I discovered Latvians. Not just four or five Latvians – more like 40 or 50 Latvians, most of whom aren’t even distantly connected to me.

ty4ns - latvians 1.png

I took seven more screen shots just like that one before I got tired of counting Latvians. I think half of the country is on my PYMK list. Still, I have to admit, I really want to party with this guy:

ty4ns - party with maksim.png

For the record, I have never been to Latvia. Without the help of Google Maps I could not have easily located it (it’s on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Estonia, FYI). Until I started digging into why LinkedIn thinks I am such a big deal in the Baltic, I had never visited the profile of anyone located in Latvia.

As they might say in Riga: Kas pie velna?

It turns out, though, I have two LinkedIn connections to Latvia. One was a connection request from an architect last January, another from a woman in the hotel business in April. I have no idea why they wanted to connect to me, nor do I have any recollection of saying yes, but that’s just the way it goes in today’s wacky world of social networking.

ty4ns - latvians 3.png

After the invasion of their countrymen I sent them both a message via LinkedIn asking if we really knew each other and why they wanted to connect. I have yet to get a response. Maybe I should have written it in Latvian.

I also asked Julie Inouye, the exceedingly patient spokesperson for LinkedIn, what was up with the sudden influx of Latvians into my social sphere. The official response:

As you know, many signals go into PYMK which we don't break down. What I can share is that the team is aware of the issue that you are experiencing and it is something the team is working on to improve the recommendation algorithm.

Sounds like a bug to me.

Of course, People You May Know is really just a chunk of code built around an algorithm – in this particular case, an algorithm that appears to have gone a little haywire (or as they say in Latvia, stipri aizrāvies). That by itself is not significant. But there’s a bigger issue at play here.

More than ever -- and online in particular -- who you know can be more important than who you are. In fact, who somebody thinks you know may be more important than who you are, especially if that somebody is a faceless government bureaucracy with limitless power to izjaukt savu dzīvi (mess up your life).

Yes, I’m back on my favorite topic of late, NSA spying.

When the NSA collects metadata on your phone calls – whom you called and when you did it, how long you talked and where you were – its purpose is to build a network of the people you know. They want to know if some of the people you know are the people they happen to be watching. And if so, well, now they’re watching you too.

It’s the spook version of People You May Know. (And of course, if you become a person of interest, the NSA will also look at your Facebook friends, who you follow on Twitter, your Gmail contacts, and so on down the line. That’s what PRISM is all about.)

This is a real thing. And you can see how it works on your own life (or at least, your own Gmail account) by signing up for Immersion, a tool created by brainiacs at MIT to show how metadata reveals the strength of relationships.

Here’s what researcher Ethan Zuckerman’s personal network looks like, according to Gmail. The big blue blob in the middle is his wife Rachel.

ty4ns - latvians 4 - ethan zuckerman.png

Now we’re all at the mercy of the NSA’s PYMK algorithms, hoping they don’t go haywire and mistake us for someone or something we’re not.

All I can say is, I hope there are no incidents involving Latvian terrorists over the next few months, or I am totally ieskrūvē.

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

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