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Facebook ‘Likes’ Used to Predict Personal Information

Facebook(NEW YORK) -- New research may have you watching what you “like” online.  A study from the University of Cambridge in England says that Facebook likes can reveal a lot about your personal information.

The Cambridge study claimed to have had success in gleaning “highly sensitive personal attributes” -- such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender -- just from what people liked online.

The analysis surveyed over 58,000 U.S. Facebook users.  The users’ likes were figured against their “Facebook profile information… psychometric test scores, and survey information,” said the study.

“It’s very easy to click the ‘like’ button, it’s seductive,” David Stillwell, one of the study authors, told AFP.  “But you don’t realize that years later all those likes are building up against you.”

Stillwell is a psychometrics researcher who worked on the project with colleagues from Cambridge University and Microsoft Research.  The work has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The best results were seen when likes were used to guess automatically between what are called dichotomous variables -- cases where there are just two choices.

For instance, the researchers said, “African Americans and Caucasian Americans were correctly classified in 95 percent of cases, and males and females were correctly classified in 93 percent of cases.”  

Likewise, Christians and Muslims were correctly identified in 82 percent of cases, as were Democrats and Republicans with 85 percent accuracy.

“Sexual orientation was easier to distinguish among males (88 percent) than females (75 percent), which may suggest a wider behavioral divide (as observed from online behavior) between hetero- and homosexual males,” the report said.

This may sound like stereotyping, but the study said, “Individual traits and attributes can be predicted to a high degree of accuracy based on records of users’ Likes.”

While those who participated in the study volunteered their information and likes (an average of 170 likes per user), not all users elect to keep their pages, posts, and likes public.  However, the cautionary way in which the Cambridge study concludes may be reason enough for some to keep their information as private as possible.

“Commercial companies, governmental institutions, or even one’s Facebook friends could use software to infer attributes such as intelligence, sexual orientation, or political views that an individual may not have intended to share,” researchers said.  “One can imagine situations in which such predictions, even if incorrect, could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.”

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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