Facebook Likes Can Reveal Users’ Private Personal Details – Study

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

Likes might reveal a lot more than users think,

Much can be deduced from looking at Facebook Likes, including sexual orientation, race and age, researchers from the University of Cambridge have claimed.

Likes are publicly open by default, so privacy advocates are concerned about how much Facebook information other people and advertisers can access outside of what users allow.

Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, in collaboration with Microsoft Research Cambridge, analysed a batch of over 58,000 US Facebook users who had volunteered to take part.

Facebook LikeFacebook Likes inference

Between 65 and 73 percent of the time, the researchers were able to predict relationship status and substance abuse from Facebook Likes. Their models, which fed Likes into algorithms that were corroborated with information from profiles and personality tests, were  accurate 95 percent of the time in distinguishing African-American users from Caucasian Americans.

In 60 percent of cases, the researchers were even able to determine where users’ parents had separated before the user reached the age of 21. The researchers suggested such data could be useful for marketers.

“Similar predictions could be made from all manner of digital data, with this kind of secondary ‘inference’ made with remarkable accuracy – statistically predicting sensitive information people might not want revealed. Given the variety of digital traces people leave behind, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control,” said Michal Kosinski, operations director at the Psychometric Centre.

“I am a great fan and active user of new amazing technologies, including Facebook. 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 research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Facebook said it wasn’t surprised by the findings. “The prediction of personal attributes based on publicly accessible information, such as zip codes, choice of profession, or even preferred music, has been explored in the past and is hardly surprising,” a spokesperson said.

“No matter the vehicle for information – a  bumper sticker, yard sign, logos on clothing, or other data found online – it has already been proven that it is possible for social scientists to draw conclusions about personal attributes based on these characteristics.”

The Cambridge report is the latest in a long line of studies that shine a light on Facebook privacy, or lack thereof. Last week, a Carnegie Mellon report suggested that while users are making increasing efforts to keep their data private, Facebook’s privacy changes have resulted in their sharing more information over time.

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Originally published on eWeek.