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Beware generosity with personal information

By Mark Waugh

 When was the last time you filled in one of those light-hearted quizzes on Facebook? The ones which ask something like: “Which Star Wars character are you?” 

It all seems like great fun and it’s mildly amusing to share with your Facebook friends that you came out as Chewbacca . . . but did you stop to think what you might have just given away? 

There are companies out there which reckon on being able to create a profile of you based on your Facebook ‘likes’ which knows you better than your significant other does. 

Once you’ve hit that reaction icon on 150 or so items, they’ve got a great picture of you. Of course you then connect with other people, follow other pages, share pictures of where you’ve been and what you’re doing. That makes for a massive bank of highly personal, targetable data. 

For advertisers, this is a treasure trove if they know how to mine it. It really comes into its own when you have the computing resources and mathematical expertise to exploit it. That doesn’t lie in the hands of your everyday ad agency, but it does in some rather shadowy ‘data companies’ which have been getting involved in global politics. 

And that’s where it gets really scary, because it is now believed by many researchers that this very approach was used to boost Donald Trump’s election and to drive the EU leave vote. 

Whatever you think of those outcomes, it’s concerning to consider they were influenced by factors other than genuine debate and that we’re all feeding the beast with our social media habit. 

The approach is the same as that used in psychological warfare by militaries and governments the world over. 

On the surface this all sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, but most of us already know what happens when we research that holiday the Caribbean or type in the name of a major car brand while pondering the next set of wheels; related ads will start appearing wherever we then visit online. 

That’s harmless enough when it might help you to make a purchasing decision, but what about if it’s pushing political content in front of you that’s designed to appeal to the profile you’ve revealed already and to subtly influence what you do next? We all like to think we’re too savvy for that, but there’s a whole industry that will tell you otherwise. 

One of those ‘harmless’ personality tests on Facebook recently went viral and reached six million people. That’s six million folks who have willingly profiled themselves in a questionnaire that was based on well-known psychometric testing techniques. 

What’s most concerning is that legislation hasn’t kept up with this intelligence gathering revolution, so the authorities around the world have a very hard time keeping tabs on who has what data and how it’s being used. 

So next time you’re invited to fill in a ‘quiz’ that reveals which of the Seven Dwarfs you would be, it might be worth taking a brief pause to wonder if you might not just be giving away a little more than you intended (and indeed so might your kids on Instagram, Snapchat and the like). 

And I don’t mind if you want to call me Grumpy for saying so. 

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