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Facebook and Online Privacy

Written by Rehana Ali on 12 March 2013

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A study into online privacy has found that Facebook users inadvertently reveal intimate secrets by using public 'like' updates. Research was carried out in the US into 58,000 users of the social networking site that currently has around 1 Billion users worldwide.      

The study found that information in the public domain allowed sensitive and private characteristics about people to be inferred (even if people had selected not reveal such information) including:

  • Sexuality.
  • Substance use.
  • Personality.
  • Political/Religious views.

The researchers stated that the same information could be collated by anyone with training in data analysis. Apparently shockingly accurate findings on people were generated by simply looking at 'likes' such as TV shows and movies. The research also boasted to the following:

  • Being able to predict whether men were homosexual with 88% accuracy despite such users not explicitly sharing their sexual orientation (under 5% of such users surveyed had not clicked on obvious - likes - such as Gay Marriage).
  • Being able to predict drug use with a 75% accuracy rate.

An academic running the study Michael Kosinski commented:

  • Everyone carries around their browsing history trusting corporations that it will be used to predict things such as music and movie tastes, the positive of predicting peoples behaviour is that Facebook can suggest stories of real interest to users in their newsfeed.
  • Certain information such as sexuality and religious views could pose threats to the safety internet users if it got into the wrong hands, especially in less liberal countries.
  •  Online sites such as Facebook should be forced by regulation to make users aware that deeply private information may be gleaned about them from technology that recommends music and film.
  • I hope internet users will change their ways and use products and services that respect their privacy.

The study emerged a short while after Facebook announced a partnership with 4 of the largest data brokers in the world. It has been the suggested that the study shall resurrect the debate about privacy online in the digital age.

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