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Revealing more than you’d Like

October 24th 2014

The work shows that it's possible to predict with a 95% accuracy whether users are Caucasian or African American, or a 88% accuracy whether they are gay or straight.   Even for IQ, it’s already about half as good as a formal IQ test.

"It's very easy to click the “Like” button, it's seductive," said David Stillwell, a psychometrics researcher and co-author of the study.  "But you don't realise that years later all those Likes are building up against you." 

Standard personality or team working tests like Myers-Briggs have long been used by employers and others looking for a particular profile.  But with these tests you go and positively take the test – you opt in.  With Facebook Likes, you’re pressing the button for a completely different reason and certainly not to enable someone to build up a profile on you. 

As one commentator put it “it’s increasingly the case that you’re [unwittingly] taking these tests just by living your life.”

The message is that you can’t trust where the data is going and how it’s to be used.  Facebook is a commercial company funded by advertising. It’s privacy policy is meant to be solid but changes on an almost weekly basis as it responds to market pressures. 

For example, Facebook recently faced a barrage of criticism after allowing 700,000 of its users to be unknowingly involved in psychometric experiments.  The resultant paper, Experimental Evidence of Massive Scale Emotional Contagion across Social Networks, provoked a rebuff from the US National Academy of Sciences.  This forced an apology (of sorts) from Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer. "It is clear now that there are things we should have done differently.”  More recently, Facebook was forced to change it’s policy on only using real names, after user criticism.

And now Facebook could also know the state of your health.  This month, according to Reuters the company is exploring creating online "support communities" that would connect Facebook users suffering from various ailments.  A small team is also considering new "preventative care" applications that would help people improve their lifestyles. 

It would be such a shame of a positive use of social media – for example connecting people who want to share experience of a particular health condition – was tainted by the drive to uncover valuable personal profiles.

Given Facebook’s dubious record of data protection, many need to be convinced.  As one observer put it: “For example, did your parents get divorced before they were 21? -  they can unlock that with 60% certitude or say with a 65% accuracy whether you are a drug user, among other things …. That’s the darker side of the data.”

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