Chances are you've heard of Chatroulette, the clever website that pairs users up for random video web chats. It's one of the hottest websites on the internet right now.
It reportedly receives upwards of 500,000 visits each day and its creator, Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow, is now being courted by some of the world's most recognizable technology investors, including Russia's DST, which owns stakes in hot American social networking companies like Facebook and Zynga.
Chatroulette's appeal isn't all that mysterious. Participants find themselves chatting with random strangers from around the world. When one participant wants to move on, he or she simply clicks 'Next' and is connected with a new random stranger. The potential entertainment value is obvious, and in many cases, for better or worse, Chatroulette delivers 'interesting' experiences.
Yet the Chatroulette fun could be coming to an end thanks to the site's mainstream popularity. A new website, Chatroulette Map, shatters any illusion that participation in Chatroulette is anonymous. Because the computers of Chatroulette participants are connected directly, it's possible to identify the IP address of another participant. Chatroulette Map is taking advantage of this to build a geolocated database of Chatroulette participants. Chatroulette Map plots its data on a Google Map, and for each participant, a photo and the actual IP address of the participant are displayed.
With this publication of this data, determining the real identity of any Chatroulette participant listed on the site is not only possible, but probably relatively easy for someone sufficiently motivated. Even more importantly, the method by which Chatroulette Map collects the data it displays is one that any geek with a minimal amount of tech savvy can replicate.
The privacy and security implications of this are obvious. The fact that the average internet user probably doesn't know what an IP address is or how it can be used only makes the situation worse, as individuals who may otherwise be inclined not to participate join the fun not knowing that they could be identified and tracked down. Investors looking at Chatroulette as a potential investment would certainly be wise to look at the potential legal risks here, and the significant costs that might be required to change Chatroulette's infrastructure to protect the privacy of participants.
Of course, in the overall scheme of things, as we've seen on social networks like Facebook and MySpace, many individuals are more than comfortable sharing very personal information online. But users of social networks can generally limit who sees what, and their IP addresses aren't made available. On Chatroulette, participants are far more likely to be under the impression that they're truly anonymous and once they click 'Next', that's the end of it.
The question now is: as this impression gives way to reality, will the bored and intrigued who are drawn to Chatroulette decide to click 'Next' on Chatroulette itself?