Research from a Cambridge University study into online privacy on Facebook shows that what someone has liked on Facebook can be used to accurately outline a huge amount of personal information.
The study revealed that Facebook users are inadvertently exposing some of their most intimate secrets via the pages they have publically “liked” on the social media website.
Cambridge University researchers were able to correctly deduce a user’s IQ, race, sexuality, drug use, political views or personality traits only using a record of the subjects, people and brands a person had liked on Facebook, even if not publically visible.
Analysing 58,000 Facebook users in the US, the researchers devised an algorithm to determine different personality traits. Gay men were picked out 88 per cent of the time, drug use was deciphered correctly in 65 per cent of cases, and even whether a user’s parents had divorced before that user turned 21 was found out in 60 per cent of cases.
“The important point is that, on one hand, it is good that people’s behaviour is predictable because it means Facebook can suggest very good stories on your news feed,” said Michal Konsinski, the lead Cambridge University analyst working with Microsoft Research for the study. “But what is shocking is that you can predict your political views or your sexual orientation. This is something most people don’t realise you can do.”
The computer software used to predict the traits could be used by anyone with training in data analysis, meaning that the same information could be collected by more dangerous organisations.
“Everyone carries around their Facebook ‘likes’, their browsing history and their search history, trusting corporations that it will be used to predict their movies or music tastes. But if you ask about governments, I am not sure people would like them to predict things like religion or sexuality, especially in less peaceful or illiberal countries,” added Konsinski.
The findings could reignite concerns about how much private data can be collected by governments and private companies, especially via seemingly innocuous Facebook likes and online habits.
“I hope internet users will change their ways and choose products and services that respect their privacy. Companies like Microsoft and Facebook depend on users willing to use their service – but this is limited when it could to Facebook because 1 billion people use it.”
The academic added that online sites like Facebook or Google should be enforced to inform users that their private data could be gathered purely by their likes, using the same technology that suggests music, movies and apps.
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