How Do You Like This? Facebook Likes Reveal Your Private Traits And Attributes

How Do You Like This? Facebook Likes Reveal Your Private Traits And Attributes

Like us on Facebook!

How many times a day do you hear or see those words? More importantly, how often do you follow the plea and click the Like button for something that interests you?

Did you know that each time you Like something, you are giving up just a little bit more of your privacy? In fact, depending on your Likes, someone may be able to accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes you possess, including your sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, use of addictive substances, and more.

This is the conclusion of a research study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The ensuing report is called “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior.”

The researchers studied the Facebook Likes of more than 58,000 subjects and compared them to detailed information provided by each of the study participants. It turns out that what people Like is a very accurate predictor of various traits and attributes, and the relationship between Likes and traits isn’t always obvious.

According to the study, people may choose not to publicly reveal certain aspects of their lives. However, this information might be predicted in a statistical sense from other aspects of their lives that they do reveal.

For example, a person who is homosexual may not want this bit of information to be known to the public. By analyzing his Likes on Facebook, things like his choice of music or places he likes to visit can infer his sexual orientation rather accurately. Given that Facebook Likes are currently publicly available by default, the person may be giving out more information about himself than he would, well, like. The research shows that 88% of the time, it’s possible to accurately predict from the analysis of Facebook Likes that a man is gay.

The chart below shows the various traits that are highly predictable from the results of the study. Of course, the study was limited in scope – only 58,000 people versus the one billion actual Facebook users – so there may be many more traits that can be revealed through a much broader analysis of Facebook users’ Likes.

Facebook privacy

I know what you are thinking: how hard is it to predict a person’s sexual orientation based on his Likes of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli music and vacations in Key West? While it’s true that some Likes do relate to their predicted attribute, says the report, other pairings prove to be far more elusive. For example, the research shows that you can predict a person’s intelligence level based on his Likes of seemingly unrelated things like thunderstorms and curly fries. (Liking both of those things predicts high intelligence. Who would have thought it?)

What I find most disturbing about this report is that it shows how publicly available information can be used to undermine individual privacy rights. For example, we already know that hiring managers scrutinize Facebook pages to determine if a prospective employee is a respectable person (e.g., no pictures of drunkenness on spring break, no affiliations with offensive groups, etc.). Now we know it’s possible for these hiring managers to mine a person’s Likes to predict the person’s political views or use of drugs or alcohol. These are only predictions, mind you, so there is no guarantee that they are accurate. However, it’s entirely possible that a perfectly good candidate can be rejected for a job based on a data mining prediction that his political leanings don’t align with those held by the company he wants to work for.

Here’s another example that could become reality as the U.S. adopts mandatory health insurance in 2014. Let’s say you are applying for a health insurance policy. You say you are not a smoker, but your Likes predict that you are. The insurance company could assess a higher premium for you based on the suspicion that you smoke cigarettes. (Insurance rates for smokers are traditionally higher than rates for non-smokers.) The fact may be that you do not smoke, but you are going to pay the price for it anyhow.

It’s quite troubling that this ability to predict traits and characteristics can be applied to people without their consent or knowledge. It’s one more way in which leaving a digital footprint takes away our right to privacy, and perhaps even our right to maintain dignity.

If you want to learn more about this, there is a demonstration of personality prediction based on individual Likes at This demonstration requires that you login to Facebook, so I haven’t tried it myself since I do not use Facebook. Test it at your own risk.

Now that you know that your Likes can be used so intimately, perhaps you’ll think twice before Liking something on Facebook.