Money Talks, So Should You

Your Facebook 'likes' can reveal too much

Facebook likes are a huge privacy issue, and users should be careful about their online preferences.

Brian O'Connell
by Brian O'Connell, MainStreet contributor

If you’re predisposed to “liking” a lot of things on Facebook, watch out:

You could be opening the vault for anyone to take a look, figure out your interests and act accordingly.

By “act accordingly,” that could mean you’ll soon be inundated with unwanted direct marketing offers, including product and political ads geared to your “Likes.” Or it could mean identity thieves gathering data on your personal interests and possibly using it to compromise your credit card or bank account.

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Sounds like a bit much?

Not really — not after research from the University of Cambridge says that virtually anyone can compromise your personal privacy by engaging in what researchers call “innocuous digital behavior” resulting in “high levels of accuracy” by online foragers.

The Cambridge data focus on those ubiquitous Facebook likes — information widely available to anyone who wants it.

Through “automatic analysis of Facebook likes,” con artists, marketers or any stranger can accurately assess your race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, likelihood of substance use and political views. Cambridge researchers say it is easy to gather highly sensitive information that can be used against you.

The study tracked 58,000 U.S. Facebook users and focused on their likes, demographic profiles and personality traits revealed on the popular social networking website. Cambridge analysts fed the data accumulated into algorithms, with surprising results.

READ: What your smartphone says about you

The models were:

  • 88 percent accurate in determining male sexuality.
  • 95 percent accurate in distinguishing white Americans from black Americans.
  • 85 percent accurate in distinguishing Republicans from Democrats.
  • 82 percent accurate in separating Christians from Muslims.
  • And had up to a 73 percent accuracy rate in figuring out relationship status and substance abuse.

Facebook users are hardly revealing all this information directly.

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The Cambridge study says it was easy to draw “inferences” from likes. For example, while only 5 percent of gay users directly clicked on “gay marriage” as a like, a majority of users could be identified as gay by likes regarding cultural themes such as movies, music and television shows. That’s valuable information for political campaigns and media advertisers, Cambridge researchers say.

The research also revealed some unique personal attributes. Who knew curly fries were linked to a high I.Q., or that smokers are more afraid of spiders than non-smokers?

Until now, we’re guessing nobody.

The study concludes by saying Facebook likes are a huge privacy issue, so users had better be careful about their online preferences.

“I am a great fan and active user of new amazing technologies, including Facebook,” says Michal Kosinski, operations director at the university’s Psychometric Centre, who conducted the research with his Cambridge colleague David Stillwell, along with Thore Graepel from Microsoft Research. “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.”

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“Just the possibility of this happening could deter people from using digital technologies and diminish trust between individuals and institutions — hampering technological and economic progress,” he adds. “Users need to be provided with transparency and control over their information.”

Stopping strangers from building a personal profile without your permission isn’t too tricky. Simply stop liking so many things on Facebook, or at least throw online trackers off the trail by liking things you, well, don’t like.

It may seem a bit silly, but make no mistake, what you like on Facebook can lead to some negative consequences at best and vulnerability to online predators at worst.

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Brian O’Connell has 15 years of experience covering business news and trends, particularly in the financial, health care and career management sectors. He has written 14 books and appeared on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, C-Span, Bloomberg, CBS Radio and other media outlets and in such publications as The Wall Street Journal and The Street.com. He is a former Wall Street bond trader.