EVEN savvy internet users are unwittingly revealing secrets such as their religion just by the topics of their Facebook posts or Wikipedia edits according to a paper being presented this morning by Australian researchers in San Francisco.
And working out someone’s most personal traits based on their existing digital breadcrumbs actually gets easier over time, even after they upgrade their privacy settings.
The “scary” findings highlight the dangers of sharing data and a future where jobseekers who had previously shared innocuous details about their life could miss out on jobs because they were being unknowingly profiled by companies.
One of the authors, Manuel Cebrian, said the research was important because people need to know how their seemingly harmless data might be used against them.
“There is evidence of some companies using online data for profiling future employees,” he said.
“You need to know that this information is being used to characterise you.”
The researchers, from CSIRO and the Australian National University, are calling for a new approach from government to online privacy that would require companies to allow people to have their online information erased.
They are in San Francisco to present their paper at the ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining.
The team studied almost 190 million edits of Wikipedia entries between 2001 and 2013.
They used the topics of edits made by users who publicly stated their gender, education level and religion to deduce the same characteristics in users that did not disclose those details.
Facebook posts would likely deliver “an increasing trend for predicting personal traits”, according to the report.
Mr Cebrian said “something can be very safe today but by sheer usage can become very unsafe”.
They found that their ability to work out these traits improved with more years of data and that the traits were likely to be evident even in Wikipedia editors with a short edit history.
“While later edits contain just as much information about a user’s privacy as the earlier edits, they tend to be less harmful since most of the information they bring has already been learned,” the paper states.
The team argues this approach could reveal other private information on other websites or social media platforms and it demonstrates that “users do not have complete control over the consequences of the information they release”.
David Vaile from the UNSW Cyberspace Law and Policy Community said the research was a “really good concrete example” of how accepted methods of remaining anonymous online can prove futile and the implications were “scary”.
“In terms of sensitive information, religion is up there near the top, and gender is also significant,” he said.
“There are increasing reports of women being discriminated against even in terms of contribution to technical debates if it’s understood that they’re women.”
The report argues “one feasible means to preserving privacy is to construct laws which would enable erasing the recorded activity in the online environment.”
The European Parliament has already implemented a “right to be forgotten” online.
As a result search engines likes Google are required to remove inadequate or irrelevant content from search results on request.
Since May 2014, Google has processed almost 400,000 requests to remove almost 1.4 million links. Almost one per cent of links are from Facebook.
Google agreed to remove 42.5 per cent of the links from search results.
But the laws have been criticised by advocates of free speech and internet companies.