Last updated: September 28, 2020
The APIs That Secretly Rule Your Life
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Modern life is, for many, an online one. And every click, every tweet, every Facebook like or product review, becomes part of a larger data pool (along with our emails, online purchases, GPS information and more) just waiting to be skimmed and sorted by a utility known as the application program interface (API).
The ubiquity of the application program interface (API) may not be something you give much thought on a daily basis. But these protocols and tools are used by companies every day to collect, organize and analyze mountains of data, much of it very personal and extremely valuable to marketers, law enforcement and government bodies of all kinds. Whenever two applications connect in order to share information and enhance functionality, chances are an API is in use.
For example, law enforcement agencies and other government bodies both produce and collect enormous amounts of data in the course of their operations, and APIs are key in the analysis and comparison of this data. From tracking crime to improving departmental efficiency, and from demographic research to behavioral profiling, APIs play a key role in modern electronic surveillance, information management, and crime prevention.
Beyond law enforcement and research, some of the biggest companies on the Internet, including Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook and more, use APIs to collect information about their users and use it to customize their experience—and to create targeted marketing and reward programs. Other APIs, such as the ones generated by Trendrr, Trackur, and other data-mining companies, are used to build very detailed profiles of users, including their age, gender, politics, income and interests. And despite getting itself into legal hot water, former up-and-comer Rapleaf also continues to collect data and build profitable profiles of individuals all over the Web—whether they've opted out or not.
Privacy concerns notwithstanding, it's clear that APIs, along with other, even more secretive methods of data collection and processing, are here to stay. And with APIs alone accounting for billions in revenue for companies throughout the social media sphere and the Internet at large, it's likely that they will only become more sophisticated and powerful as life both online and off is increasingly affected by harvested data.
The APIs That Secretly Rule Your Life
An API (application program interface) is a set of routines, protocols, and tools for two different applications to communicate with each other in order to enhance the features and add functionality of one or both. They allow developers to build innovations on top of another company's technology.
Frightening Ways APIs are Being Used
Just how much of your personal life is readily available to third-party APIs?
Database marketing is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Social media monitoring (SMM) firms like Trendrr, Trackur, and Sentiment Metrics use sophisticated algorithms to collect and analyze the vast amount of personal data consumers leave in their online wake.
Specific data on a person collected by SMM and other services can include:
- A person's household income range
- Age range
- Political leaning
- Gender and age of children in the household
- Interests in topics including religion, gambling, tobacco, and adult entertainment
- What's on a person's Amazon wishlist
Demographic, household, interest, and purchase data can be retrieved from an email database (up to thousands of emails) via services such as Rapleaf, eDataSource, and FlipTop.
Rapleaf can build intimate databases on people by tapping voter-registration files, shopping histories, social-networking activities, and real estate records that it then sells for targeted online advertising.
- It also collects data based on the activity of a user's friends.
- The service clearly has value to many with about 200 million API calls per day in 2011.
- Early adopters included political campaigns.
- It can determine whether or not someone is a worthwhile risk for a credit card or a loan-all without hacking into any accounts or breaking any laws.
- In 2010, The Wall Street Journal uncovered a specific instance where the service revealed a unique Facebook ID number linking back to a person's real name to at least 12 companies.
- The practice of revealing Facebook ID numbers was ended after the Journal brought it to the company's attention.
Founded in 1969 with more than 32 billion data records, Acxiom tracks personal information from a person's web behavior to their Social Security number and even their finances.
- Its servers process more than 50 trillion data "transactions" a year.
- Acxiom's customers have included Wells Fargo, HSBC, E*Trade, Toyot, Ford, and Macy's.
Intelius aggregates public records to let companies and consumers perform background checks on other people, claiming to have more than 20 billion records on individuals.
- It tracks your name, address, address history, age, birthday, phone number, relatives, income, the value of your home, and your marital status.
- It also searches government records for criminal activity, bankruptcies, liens, judgments, aliases, lawsuits, divorce records, and death records.
Pipl crawls the web looking for other websites and data miners such as social networks and government resources with your name and personal data.
- It then displays links to that information on a single page and sells targeted ads.
iOS app Refresh connects social accounts to create a dossier of things you should chit chat about with members of your social networks.
Rapporative shows data about people such as social media activity, where they're located, their company, title, and more in Gmail next to your email conversations.
The Tinder dating app allows users to view people of interest within a chosen distance, displaying Facebook friends and interests in common. When a match is made, users can use the app's chat feature.
APIs have allowed for wider use of facial recognition technology, with Mashape.com featuring 77 mashups that leverage face detection APIs.
Alessandro Acquisti, an Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, demonstrated how a photograph of a random individual can be sent to a database where it can be quickly and accurately associated with a name, date of birth, and Social Security number.
Facebook's facial recognition feature, which can match faces to profiles, group together photos with similar faces in them, and suggest the name of a friend when tagging photos was banned in Europe.
- The German Data Protection Authority's main concern was that Facebook did not notify its users that the facial recognition technology was being used.
- They claimed that a biometrics database containing millions of faces has "immense potential" for being misused.
Although Google banned facial recognition for Google Glass, some companies such as ReKognition for GlassbyOrbeus have found ways to sidestep the privacy issue at hand by focusing on features instead of detecting an identity.
In Elk Grove, CA officers can use facial recognition technology to analyze images fed to them in real time from video cameras around the city and issue alerts when the cameras spot people the police are hunting.
Law enforcement in the U.S. has assembled a huge database of more than 120 million searchable photographs from all over the world, including photos on driver's licenses in every state in the union to help track down terrorists, criminal suspects, and accomplices.
Some retailers have even considered implementing facial recognition for when celebrities visit their stores.
Services that Depend on APIs
Here is just a sampling of the hundreds of services and apps that rely on APIs.
With deals with more than 1,000 telecom carriers around the world, Twilio's APIs help developers easily add SMS, voice, and VoIP functionality to their applications.
- A business could use Twilio to let a customer rep talk to people visiting its website.
- A taxi service could use it to send an SMS message to customers letting them know what time their ride will arrive.
Trendsmap.com combines popular, location-specific Twitter topics with Google Maps for users to see the most tweeted subjects for a given location in real time.
Using Data.gov's API, ThisWeKnow.org allows users to view details on the makeup of a city's population, homeowners vs. renters, any recent influx of new residents, the number of factories in town, and local cancer statistics.
Poligraft.com attempts to shed light on any online political news story, returning detailed information about all of the politicians and newsworthy people in the piece.
TheTracktor.com helps you acquire pricing information that will aid you in making informed purchasing decisions.
- You can see the pricing history of any item, so you'll know if you just missed out on a steep discount.
APIs fuel mobile because any app that does anything interesting needs to pass data back and forth between a server.
MyFitnessPal launched a closed API for its partners so users can sync more devices and get a larger picture of their overall health.
Nike made its Fuelband API available for third party developers to build iPhone apps that compliment the product, such as the Zombies, Run! app that prompts users pick up your pace by simulating zombie attacks.
The Most Popular APIs
Many of the social tools that businesses and individuals use every day rely on APIs from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, and more.
The 10 most popular APis in the ProgrammableWeb directory are:
- Google Maps with nearly 2,500 mashups
- Twitter with almost 800
- YouTube with more than 670
- Flickr with over 620
- Amazon Product Advertising at 420+
- Facebook with more than 400
- Twilio at 350+
- fm at 234
- eBay with more than 230
- Google Search at nearly 200
Most operating environments such as Microsoft Windows provide an API so that programmers can write applications consistent with the operating environment.
Rewards programs and location-based marketing have become increasingly popular as more apps are launched to make program creation, execution, management, and tracking simpler.
U.S. government data became available as APIs in 2011.
- The biggest case for use of government open data is increasing law enforcement effectiveness for analysis and transparency.
- Socrata's Data API SODA turns any spreadsheet into an API.
- 4 U.S. state governments (Oregon,Oklahoma, Mississippi, Colorado) and 7 major U.S. cities (Austin, Chicago,Seattle, New York , San Francisco, New Orleans and Baltimore) are all using SODA to track crime data.
The API Explosion
According to White House Innovation Fellow Kin Lane, APIs will be the default for companies by 2015.
Starting with just 105 APIs listed in 2005, ProgrammableWeb's API Directory reached 8,000 APIs in November of 2012, increasing by 1,000 in just 3 months.
The directory now features more than 9,500 APIs, growing 18.8% in 8 months.
The top 5 categories of the last 1,000 APIs added are Enterprise, Financial, Science, Payment, and Messaging.
According to John Musser, founder of ProgrammableWeb, some companies are accounting for billions of dollars in revenue per year via API links to their services.
Expedia's affiliate network counts $2 billion worth of business a year via APIs, with 90% of their business being through APIs.
Online services are handling billions of API calls per day, such as Google (13 bn), Facebook (5 bn), Netflix (1.4 bn), eBay (1 bn), and Klout (1 bn).
The increasing number of venture capital funded companies helping businesses manage their API offerings is another indicator of the growth, including:
Management services include metering access, obtaining access keys, ongoing uptime monitoring, security, and analysis of customer usage.
- Socrata Data API: Keeping Government Open - blog.programmableweb.com
- 8,000 APIs: Rise of the Enterprise - blog.programmableweb.com
- Web APIs - Growth, Management, Protocols, Testing Tools - qualitylogic.com
- Billions of API Calls Traversing Web, Redefining "Software" - zdnet.com
- APIs for the Enterprise - information-age.com
- Orbeus Launches Visual Recognition (But Not Creepy Facial Recognition) APIs For Google Glass - techcrunch.com
- High-End Stores Use Facial Recognition Tools To Spot VIPs - npr.org
- Calorie-Counting MyFitnessPal App Is About to Get Even More Useful - mashable.com
- Twitter Announces Advertising API - mashable.com
- New Pipl API Pulls in a Staggering - and Creepy - Amount of People Data Into Your Apps - readwrite.com
- Top 5 Web Mashups - science.howstuffworks.com
- Refresh Provides Creepy Dossiers on People to Avoid Awkward Small Talk - lifehacker.com
- How Rapleaf Is Data-Mining Your Friend Lists to Predict Your Credit Risk - fastcompany.com
- A Web Pioneer Profiles Users by Name - online.wsj.com
- Mapping, and Sharing, the Consumer Genome - nytimes.com
- These Data Miners Know Everything About You - money.cnn.com
- Facebook Must Destroy Facial Recognition Data - or Get Users' Approval, Germany Decides - zdnet.com
- Boston Manhunt: Facial Recognition Technology Catching on with Police - mercurynews.com
- Facial Recognition Software: Promise or Peril? - cbsnews.com
- With A Huge $70 Million Investment, Twilio Is Now Worth $500 Million - businessinsider.com