Researchers in the UK have accurately been able to predict the political allegiance, ethnicity, drug use and sexual preference of Facebook users based on public domain information and their ‘likes’ on the popular social media service.
The joint Cambridge University and Microsoft Research study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, raises serious privacy concerns about the ability of Facebook to infer information about users through data mining, even where that information had not been expressly given to the social media giant.
For example, the researchers were able to systematically predict, across 58,000 Facebook users, that male users who liked the pages “Human Rights Campaign” and “Wicked, the Musical” were gay, with 88% accuracy.
Lead analyst Michal Kosinski told The Guardian many end users were unaware about the ways data could be harvested from social media services.
“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,” Kosinski said.
“But what is shocking is that you can use the same data to predict your political views or your sexual orientation. This is something most people don’t realise you can do.”
Kosinski fears the ability to accurately predict such information could have serious consequences for users in illiberal countries.
“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,” he said.
“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.”