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GiveEmThis.com suggests gifts for your Facebook friends, but at what price?

Without GiveEmThis, you wouldn't know that the romance novel "Independence" would be the perfect gift for Stephen Harper. But is that knowledge worth the loss of privacy? 

Peli Desiccant Silica Gel.

I’ve never heard of this product before, but according to a website called GiveEmThis.com, it would have been the perfect gift for me this past Christmas. And a bargain at only $15.25! Aww, you shouldn’t have.

If you couldn’t find the silica gel, you could always have wrapped up a pack of Sony Lithium 3V batteries ($15.91) and slipped it under my tree. Or a Mr. Ice Bucket ($40.00). If you were feeling really generous, you could have sent me a Panasonic Viera TC-L32C32 32-inch television set, at only $399.95 (all prices in U.S. currency, from Amazon.com, not including shipping and taxes).

Thankfully, nobody gave me any of these (or the Club Champ Kooler Klub, $49.99, or Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, $10.20). I wouldn’t have been too thrilled, and not just because I don’t celebrate Christmas. None of these even remotely appeal to me, but they feature in the top 10 gifts to give Terry Lavender on GiveEmThis.com.

In a way, I’m relieved, because GiveEmThis.com comes up with its recommendations by analyzing a person’s tweets and Facebook postings. If all this data-mining of my social media musings could be so woefully off-the-mark, maybe I don’t have to worry about my privacy.

Or do I? More on that later. 

You can amuse yourself for hours by typing in the names of celebrities, politicians and others on the GiveEmThis.com site. Though it works best if you are a Facebook friend of the person, you can also enter their Twitter id, which is readily accessible, to get a list of recommendations.

For example:

Stephen Harper

GiveEmThis suggests the paperback romance Independence by Kate Kasserman, about an orphaned girl in revolutionary America who "tries to hide her damning past and save the rebel officer she secretly loves."

If you suspect he already has a copy, GiveEmThis’s second choice for our prime minister is another book: Non-Chalcedonianism: Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Malenkara Orthodox Syrian Church

Gregor Robertson


 A Body Solid nylon head harness is what GiveEmThis suggests giving our mayor after analysing his tweets. It’s apparently “recommended for competitive athletes and specifically designed for those in contact sports.”

Photo sourced from Body Solid website. 

Well, I guess politics can be classified as a contact sport. The second choice was the children’s book Little Blue Truck Leads the Way. According to the Amazon product description, “the big city sure is a speedy, noisy place for a country truck like Blue. Everywhere Blue looks, he sees buses, police cans, taxis, vans, a street sweeper, and even the mayor’s limousine.”

Christy Clark

Two sports books, Football: Bloody Hell and Branch Rickey in Pittsburgh top the list of recommendations for the premier.

But also in the top 10 are Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, a fleece throw and a potato cutter.

Reading Pol Pot while cutting spiral fries? 

At first glance, GiveEmThis might seem like a harmless, amusing way to pass the time by laughing at its wildly inappropriate (or strangely appropriate) suggestions for gifts for your friends, celebrities and others. And initially, I was going to write a lighthearted column doing just that.

But on reflection, I think GiveEmThis requires more serious analysis.

Clumsy and inappropriate it may be, with a few tweaks the site could become a powerful tool to gain information about you and your Facebook friends. And even in its current crude form, GiveEmThis offers incitement for disclosing private information.

In the website's FAQ page, GiveEmThis explains how it comes up with the gift ideas:

"[W]e algorithmically analyze your friend's social media. We then compare their information to millions of products and filter them down to a few recommendations. Our goal is to help you find a gift you and your friend will love."

It uses data-mining technology powered by Imply Labs to do this:

"Once the technology is introduced to someone's Facebook, twitter, blog, etc., it analyzes the data, behaviors and trends to discover the implications. We don't just look at Facebook likes and interests, we look at blog posts, status updates, tweets, re-tweets, bios, etc. Social media allows people to say more than "I Like This" so we look at more.

Here’s an overview of the information they collect: 

Although the GiveEmThis website claims it “only checks public information on the web”, that's only partially true. The Facebook information may be public (depending on your friend’s privacy settings), but it’s more likely to be semi-private, in that your friend has adjusted Facebook settings so that only friends (or even a select group among her friends) see her posts.

When a person indicates on Facebook that she just lost her job or is expecting a baby, she is doing so assuming that only her friends will see that post and will use their discretion in how they use that information.

By allowing GiveEmThis access to a friend’s information, you're providing them with your friend’s birthdate, gender, email address, relationship status, interests and whatever other information in their Facebook profile.

And what does GiveEmThis do with this information? Here's an excerpt from their privacy policy

We may also collect information about you and your Friends from social networking services (e.g., Facebook) and other Internet services (e.g., Twitter and blogs ...

Such information may include names, profile information, photographs, page or account information, and other information available to us from social networking service or other Internet service….

We reserve the right to provide your Personally-Identifying Information to our affiliates and service providers …

We may use your Personally-Identifying Information for remarketing purposes, i.e., to advertise, market and promote coupons, products, services, discounts and offers to you and your Friends and to individuals of similar demographics and preferences as you and your Friends and we may also engage third parties to assist us in doing so.

In other words, when you use GiveEmThis to find and buy your friend that Mr. Ice Bucket you end up giving them more than just $40.00 (plus shipping and taxes) in exchange. You also give your email address and other demographic information, your Facebook activity, and all of your friend’s personal information and activity as well. 

The privacy policy also explains what "personally-identifying information" means and notes that friends don't have to reveal this information, but it may be required in order to receive a gift recommendation. 

"Personally-Identifying Information" is information such as a name or email address that can be directly associated with a specific person so as to identify that person ...
Depending on the activity, you may be asked to provide your name, telephone number, address, email address, date of birth and other Personally-Identifying Information. 

I don’t mean to pick on GiveEmThis. It’s only the most visible of several consumer-oriented data mining companies, thanks in part to enthusiastic write-ups on Yahoo, Wired and other tech news sources. But I am concerned that, as the technology improves, more sophisticated enticements to part with our private information -- and that of our friends, families and colleagues -- will be temptingly dangled in front of us.

Will we able to resist? More importantly, will our friends?

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