Facebook’s ‘likes’ could reveal the sexuality, political leanings and even your intelligence with an accuracy of between 65-95%. The study, created by Cambridge University, should will ring alarm bells for anyone who thinks that privacy settings are the solution to protecting information online.
The study, which used 58,000 volunteers, looked at Facebook “likes” and demographic information alongside provided psychometric testing results which are able to reveal personality traits.
The information was then fed into an algorithm which proved to be 88% accurate for determining male sexuality, 95% accurate in distinguishing African-American from Caucasian-American and 85% for differentiating Republican from Democrat. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases and relationship status and substance abuse was predicted with an accuracy between 65% and 73%. Bizarrely, some strong but random links were found, such as Curly Fries with high IQ.
It is this sort of accuracy which shows that we need to seriously rethink how much data we are voluntarily sharing online. Sharing individual likes or pages might not seem hugely intrusive, but it allows individuals to be categorised and behaviour predicted in areas that are far more personal and sensitive than people realise.
Michael Kosinski, a lead researcher on the study, has said: “I appreciate automated book recommendations, or Facebook selecting the most relevant stories for my newsfeed. However, I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life”.
The researchers themselves have acknowledged that similar predictions could be made from “all manner of digital data” with remarkable accuracy, predicting sensitive information that many people would not want to be revealed. Given the number of “digital traces” that people leave behind, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control.
Internet users are right to expect a strong level of privacy protection to be built into services and this research serves as a stark reminder that this simply isn’t the case. It is this sort of accuracy that should serve as a reminder that we need to take a mindful approach to what we share online, utilising the privacy controls and never sharing content with unknown third parties.Yet again, it is clear the lack of transparency about how users’ data is being used will lead to entirely justified fears about our data being exploited for commercial gain.