Facebook Updates Privacy: So We Are All Safe Now, Right?
Deriving Insights With Basic Information
Not sure if you've heard, but Mark Zuckerberg has been a very naughty boy and is receiving a public spanking. It turns out Facebook has been sharing rather more of our data than they were supposed to and some people are furious. They fear that with enough information, bad people could send us links that we will be powerless to ignore, whether it be new trainers or a new President. In response, Mark has committed to reducing the basic information that can be accessed about you.
The new situation is this; a third party can now only access three things without express permission from a user: your name, your profile picture and your email address. Phew, I guess we can all breath easy again, I mean, what can be done with such limited information anyway?
Let's start with our names. Our first names often contain regional spellings, like the difference between Sebastian or Sebastien, that will give an indication of background (English or French speaking in this case). First names can also give you an indication of age. Most popular names in the 1950s were Linda and James yet by 2010s both had disappeared from the top 20 list. Surnames can be even more telling. Khan or Amed vs. Jones or Smith gives pretty strong indications of background and ethnic group.
So what about email addresses. There is a chance your email might be saying more about you than you realise. Firstly your choice of email provider. Although Gmail has current global market share, there are a number of hugely popular email providers that have distinct regional bias; QQ has nearly 50% of the Chinese market. Finally, you may have used your professional address which means that you have also just given away your place of work!
Finally, your profile picture. That well-created angel-shot likely to be at least a few years out of date but definitely giving away more than just your face. These images contain some of the strongest clues of all. Sex, age, clothing and location can all be obtained from the average profile picture. And all these things add up to give a pretty good indication of who you are, or at least who you would like the world to see you as.
So with just these three bits of information, there is a huge amount that could be derived about you, and this means the next Cambridge Analytica or someone with access to AI can trawl though the available information, group people and sell those groups to interested parties.
Beyond Things We Have Shared Online
It is important to note, I’m not suggesting that this kind of grouping will be 100% accurate, far from it. We are all guilty of telling the odd online fib with many creating online personas that stay wildly from reality, but that doesn’t matter. All this type of profiling needs to do to be valuable, is provide something beyond just a list of names.
The reality is, like it or not, there is a huge amount of data that can be collected and used to make guesses about who we are. And as AI develops, it is going to get easier to improve on current assumptions based on surname and/or email provider. Instead, we will have systems that are able to link everything you have ever done online to create profiles with increasing accuracy.
But this is not really Mark’s fault. He is just the high profile scapegoat. The conclusion to draw from Mark’s public scolding is this. Regardless of the improvements in profiling, and the resulting targeted messaging, we are still autonomous beings. Don't get me wrong, it is always nice to have someone to blame, but it is only ever going to be up to each of us, what we buy and who we vote for.