LinkedIn: an espionage tool?

I have no idea why Aladdin Knowledge Systems decided to attack LinkedIn, the business networking giant. A company which was valued last week at just over a billion dollars. Perhaps Aladdin thought it would ride the giant’s coat tails.

Unfortunately, the method it chose was to accuse LinkedIn of making industrial espionage easier. “Ah,” thought I, “it can only be saying this because it has a cure.” Wrong. I called the company to get the low-down and it said it had no practical recommendation except to advise ‘control the use of LinkedIn’. How bizarre.

The specific assertion is that LinkedIn knows who gets what jobs and can aggregate the information, thus ‘disclosing’ who’s been taken on and whose roles have changed in any given company. This, apparently, is industrial espionage. The information is all public, but it gets quite interesting when you know the company concerned. And you can find out far more juicy stuff from the aggregated information.

Given Aladdin’s reservations about the subject, I decided to investigate its own employees’ activities on LinkedIn. Out of the 464 employees that BusinessWeek claims Aladdin employs, 388 of them are listed in LinkedIn.

One of the more interesting aspects was the calculated career path for employees. Computer Associates and McAfee were in the ‘before working at Aladdin’ list while Microsoft and Symantec were in the ‘post-Aladdin’ list. LinkedIn also lists the companies employees are most connected to. No doubt that’s a bit of a revelation to, to those in the know.

So, despite the warnings from Aladdin, it seems that its own employees are fairly unconcerned. A few VPs appear and the one I looked at, David Collins, was happy to display a pretty comprehensive public profile.

The problem with LinkedIn, Facebook and all the other public sites, is that a) people are free to add whatever information they like and b) the owner of the site has a huge amount of discretion over what they do with the social network information which derives therefrom.

When you sign up with them, this is part of the deal for ‘putting yourself about.’ You pays your money (or not, in most cases) and you takes your choice. You can restrict what you post online – leaving out key information that could lead, say, to identity theft. And, if really concerned, you can remove your details permanently through a link in the ‘customer services’ part of the LinkedIn site.

If you are concerned about your own employee and company details being rummaged, erm I mean spied on, then perhaps you should raise the issue at the interview stage for new hires and tell existing staff to remove themselves from the services. But my guess is that this would backfire. Your standing will be diminished and they’d find another way of putting the word out anyway. Maybe with a greater sense of urgency.

Frankly, I wouldn’t worry too much. After all, so much information is already just a visit to your company watering hole or a Google search away. Maybe better to talk to them about the potential dangers of giving too much information away online. And, with the issues understood, trust them to do the right thing by both of you.

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