March 13, 2013 | By Adi Kamdar and Dave Maass

You Won't Like What Your Facebook 'Likes' Reveal

Have you clicked “like” next to “Bret Michaels” or “I Love Being a Mom” on Facebook?

Did you also click “like” next to “Austin Texas”?

Or maybe you clicked “like” next to “Never Apologize For What You Feel It’s Like Saying Sorry For Being Real,” because you were inspired by the quote sometimes attributed to Lil Wayne.  

Then you’ve just given enough information to Facebook for someone to profile you as a likely drug-user with a low IQ whose parents divorced before you were 21.

That may or may not be wholly true to your specific case, but researchers at the University of Cambridge published a study this week, titled "Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior" that shows—with alarming accuracy—the types of sensitive,  personal information that can be predicted based solely on your Facebook likes.

The researchers—Michal Kosinski, David Stillwell and Thore Graepel—write in the lastest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

We show that a wide variety of people’s personal attributes, ranging from sexual orientation to intelligence, can be automatically and accurately inferred using their Facebook Likes. Similarity between Facebook Likes and other widespread kinds of digital records, such as browsing histories, search queries, or purchase histories suggests that the potential to reveal users’ attributes is unlikely to be limited to Likes. Moreover, the wide variety of attributes predicted in this study indicates that, given appropriate training data, it may be possible to reveal other attributes as well.

EFF and other privacy organizations often warn users of social media sites to be mindful of the type of information they make publicly available. We advocate locking down your privacy settings and opting out of tracking programs launched by marketing companies, so your data, to the extent it can, remains under your control.

Nevertheless, the seemingly innocuous things you “like” on Facebook may reveal far more about your life than what you actually like.

The authors write: 

Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share. One can imagine situations in which such predictions, even if incorrect, could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life. Importantly, given the ever-increasing amount of digital traces people leave behind, it becomes difficult for individuals to control which of their attributes are being revealed. For example, merely avoiding explicitly homosexual content may be insufficient to prevent others from discovering one’s sexual orientation.

The researchers used a pool of 58,000 volunteers in the United States. Based on “Likes” alone, they were able to predict whether a user was African-American or white 95% of the time, male or female 93% of the time.

They were able to gauge sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% of the time for women. They were also able to predict political leaning (Republican versus Democrat) 85% of the time. On a more personal level, the researchers were able to predict whether your parents divorced when you were a kid 60% of the time. 

The study also could make reasonably accurate guesses about whether you were a drug user, drinker, or smoker, as well as a host of other attributes, including emotional stability, satisfaction with life, and extraversion.

The research confirms what we’ve expected all along: Our privacy continues to constrict in an era of big data. Information we put out there for one purpose can now easily be collated and acted upon for wildly different purposes.

In their conclusion, the researchers admit their research is scary, but they also suggest a solution:

There is a risk that the growing awareness of digital exposure may negatively affect people’s experience of digital technologies, decrease their trust in online services, or even completely deter them from using digital technology. It is our hope, however, that the trust and goodwill among parties interacting in the digital environment can be maintained by providing users with transparency and control over their information, leading to an in dividually controlled balance between the promises and perils of the Digital Age.

With knowledge of tracking schemes, users should be able to tailor their settings to display (and receive) only information they’re comfortable with sharing. We suggest you practice good Facebook hygiene and go through your “Likes” right now to make sure you still actually like those things.

After all, if liking "Harley Davidson" implies a low level of intelligence, you may want to keep your love of motorcycles hush-hush.

Conversely, if you’re smart (or want to come across as smart), you might just go out and like “Curly Fries” or “Morgan Freemans Voice."

Check out some of the charts from the study here.

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