For many people, a common method of protecting their digital privacy comes in the form of abstaining from social media sites.
Forums like 4Chan, Infinitychan, Reddit, and Above Top Secret, to name a few, are full of people who boast of abstaining from Facebook to protect their digital footprint.
Now research has revealed what privacy experts have been warning people about for years. Even if you delete Facebook - the tech giant is probably still amassing a treasure trove of data about you via your real life friends and contacts.
We are watching you (via them)
The worrying new data was published by researchers at the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide. The researchers discovered that they can predict people’s posts on social media sites with 95% accuracy - even if they never have never owned an account themselves.
During the study, the researchers used information gathered from as few as 10 of the subjects' real-world contacts to build up a “mirror image” of them. The researchers harnessed the power of more than 30.8 million tweets from 13,905 accounts in order to create mirror image profiles using machine learning.
According to the teams involved AI algorithms were eventually developed which could accurately predict what a person was likely to post based on what their contacts usually posted. In addition, the researchers were able to figure out people’s interests, likes, and even do personality profiling.
The technology, which is frighteningly reminiscent of something out of Black Mirror, is a stark reminder that social media is a powerful tool for surveillance and social control. In countries like China - where we have already seen social credit systems come into play - it has already been predicted that who people mix with could have a detrimental effect on their score.
In the future, citizens who associate with contacts that have politically unsavory ideals, immoral habits, are out of work, socially immobile, or have a history of breaking the law - could theoretically harm your social standing. This could inevitably lead to people being shunned from social networks.
This latest technology demonstrates that even people who believe they are remaining out of the system of social control are actually still been scooped up in the process. According to the University of Vermont professor Jim Bagrow, the problem is palpable:
"You alone don't control your privacy on social media platforms. Your friends have a say too."
For people who previously owned a Facebook or Twitter account - but deleted it - the problem is compounded. Data amassed in the past gives social media platforms a head start plus a list of possible contacts.
The vast majority of tech giants are investing heavily in machine learning AI algorithms designed to do jobs just like that developed by the researchers.
In addition, it has previously been alleged that Facebook may be able to use passive listening to listen not only to what Facebook users say but also to those people in close proximity. This raises alarm bells about the kind of data social media sites could amass about non-social media account holders.
Privacy legislation like the EU’s GDPR provides consumers with a clear framework for being able to ask firms to tell them what data they are keeping on file about them. For the vast majority of consumers, however that they need to ask firms they have never had contact with personally for details about what data is being held on file about them is probably alien.
Sadly, these shadow profiles are already likely to be a reality, and as AI improves they will only impact people’s privacy more. As Lewis Mitchell, the study's co-author eloquently put it:
"There's no place to hide in a social network.”
If this story has made you reconsider your online privacy you may want to start using a VPN. Take a look at our best VPN services for more information.