What you "Like" on Facebook could come back to haunt you. Cambridge University researchers have shown they can accurately predict intimate personal attributes based on when you choose to click the Like button.
What types of attributes? Race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, substance use and political views. These insights are not always apparent to the naked eye. Less than 5 percent of gay users, for example, clicked Like on topics like gay marriage. At the same time, even details like whether a user's parents were separated before adulthood were predictable through the Like button.
"We believe that our results, while based on Facebook Likes, apply to a wider range of online behaviors." said Michal Kosinski, operations director at Cambridge's Psychometric Centre, who conducted the research with his Cambridge colleague David Stillwell and Thore Graepel from Microsoft Research.
The implications for marketers are real. With knowledge of intimate personal details, advertisers can better target Facebook users. But privacy advocates are up in arms about the transparency. Researchers are also concerned.
Stillwell said: "I have used Facebook since 2005, and I will continue to do so. But I might be more careful to use the privacy settings that Facebook provides."
Kosinski said he could "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."
And Graepel said, "Consumers rightly expect strong privacy to be built into the products and services they use and this research may well serve as a reminder for consumers to take a careful approach to sharing information online, utilizing privacy controls and never sharing content with unfamiliar parties."
Should FTC Step In?
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the study showed it was possible to use the data to infer information about Facebook users that they might not know they were revealing. But he told us he was still concerned about the bigger picture.
"When you like a page, for example, a lot of the data associated with you, including your friends and other likes, gets transferred. The whole social graph goes to the organization and that's a deeper problem that exists with or without the Cambridge study. This has been a problem pretty much from the start," Rotenberg said.
"We feel it's a violation of the 2011 consent order that Facebook agreed to" with the Federal Trade Commission, Rotenberg said.
"We think at this point it's actually on the FTC to take some action to ensure that the company is complying with the consent order. The FTC has the enforcement authority. They really should act."