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Does LinkedIn know about your Google searches?

I'm getting some disquieting “People You Might Know” recommendations

For several months now, LinkedIn has faced various class-action lawsuits alleging, among other things, that it's been siphoning users' email contacts without their permission. Here's an example, lifted from a court brief, explaining how this supposedly works:

“LinkedIn attempts to access a user's Gmail account if the user has Gmail open in another browser window or has not logged out of Gmail. If an email account is open, LinkedIn accesses the account by using the open email session. LinkedIn does not prompt members for a password. Instead, LinkedIn sweeps the external email account for every email address a user has been emailed by, CCed, or emailed. For many users this is thousands of addresses. “

I am neither a lawyer nor a computer expert, but I daresay LinkedIn does the same thing with Hotmail accounts, and even manages to work your personal Google searches into its invitation algorithms somehow. Here's why I say this:

A couple nights ago, a guy I knew back in college sent me an invitation to “Connect” on LinkedIn, via the vintage Hotmail address I use for that purpose. Which reminded me: hey, I have a LinkedIn page! I should probably update it or something.

Suggested list

So after clicking “I accept” on my old classmate's invitation, I logged in to my profile, made some half-hearted updates and then, out of curiosity, scrolled through LinkedIn's suggested list of “People You Might Know.”

Some of those suggestions were dead-on – yep, I know that person all right, and we've exchanged emails through my Hotmail account. Others presumably made it onto the list because we had connections in common, or the same employer or school listed somewhere on our resumes.

As I scrolled further down through the list, I saw more names that seemed thoroughly random — people with whom I had no mutual connections, whose names didn't sound familiar, people who didn't even work in the same field or live in the same time zone as me—but amidst this list of apparent strangers one recognizable name jumped out: Thedala Magee.

If her name sounds familiar, it's because she made international headlines in 2011. Magee was (and, according to LinkedIn, still is) a Californian who works for the Transportation Security Administration.

Genital region

In April 2011, advice columnist and fellow Californian Amy Alkon criticized Magee by name in a blog post expressing outrage over TSA's treatment of airline passengers; Alkon wrote an explicit (and possibly not safe for work) blog post describing how Magee searched her genital region — completely in line with TSA guidelines, though an outraged Alkon described it with terms including “government-sanctioned sexual assault” and “rape.”

In September of that year, Magee unsuccessfully attempted to sue Amy Alkon over the blog post, demanding Alkon delete the post and pay Magee half a million dollars.

I'm not personally acquainted with Alkon or Magee, and live 3,000 miles from them both, so why is Magee's name in my recommendation list?

Presumably it's because I've refused to fly in American airspace ever since TSA implemented its current touchy-feely-gropey policies in 2010. And I've frequently complained about these policies, both in professional-journalism contexts and on my personal blog, which is connected to the same email I use for LinkedIn. In 2011, when Magee's lawsuit against Alkon came to light, I blogged about it exactly twice. 

Still, it's a publicly available blog, so LinkedIn's knowledge of its contents hardly counts as a privacy violation — though I would advise whoever writes LinkedIn's algorithms that just because I mention someone's name doesn't mean I want to “connect” with them. Context matters, guys.

You might know

LinkedIn's algorithm may not know much about basic human nature but it does seem to know the contents of my Google searches. That would explain another blast-from-the-past name on the “People You Might Know” list LinkedIn prepared for me last night: a man I'll call Herbert Oddname, who my much-younger-self dated for a couple of months way the hell back in 1990, one year before the official 1992 birth date of the “World Wide Web” and several years before anybody heard of email.

So I haven't seen or spoken to ol' Herbert since the pre-Internet era, we have no schools, jobs or connections in common, and I've never mentioned his name in any blog post, professional writing or private email, either. How does LinkedIn know about our briefly shared past?

Only one theory comes to mind: one night some years ago, when I was bored and had time to kill, I Googled the names of various people I once knew. Such searches rarely prove fruitful for me, since so many of my old friends have extremely common names — except Herbert. The Oddname family has very few members in America (at least, very few who turn up in online searches), and only one with the personal name Herbert.

So he was easy to find. Turns out in the 20-plus years since last we met he aged roughly half a century, and now runs a small business and spends his spare time posting grumpy get-off-my-lawn type comments on extreme political blogs of the sort that make my teeth curl.

Thus did I enjoy a good laugh at my teenaged self and her appalling taste in boyfriends, and thought little more about it — until I scrolled through LinkedIn's “People You Might Know” list last night and found Herbert Oddname on the same recommendation list as Thedala Magee.

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