It only takes one bit of data…

A few days ago, I created a new Facebook account. Not for myself, of course; I’m not stupid! (I deleted my own account many years ago and haven’t looked back.) No, it was because my company was writing some software that connected to Instagram, and doing that requires you to have a Facebook account in order to get ‘Developer’ access and for testing.

So, I set up a new email address and registered with a somewhat fake name, logged in and started browsing a generic here-are-some-feeds-you-might-be-interested-in type of experience. No personal details… all nice and anonymous.

The following day, I couldn’t log in. “Your account has been blocked.” Had I been rumbled? Ah, no, they just wanted to check I was really a real human by sending a text to my phone. I put in my phone number, got the text, filled in the code, and I was back in again. Jolly good. I logged out and went back to work.

A few days later…

The following Tuesday I logged in again, and there was a picture of my cousin, listed as someone I might want to connect with. Nice picture, I thought. And then, “Wait a minute! How do they know about her?”

I scrolled down, and sure enough, there were my friends, family, past work colleagues… dozens of ’em, all just waiting to welcome my ‘anonymous’ account into the fold. And then I remembered…

I still have a WhatsApp account. I seldom use that, either, but it’s there. And so, I presume, the act of entering my phone number for a security confirmation on my test account gave Facebook access to my entire graph of social contacts. Or, and perhaps in addition, lots of people with Facebook apps on their phone will have my phone number in their contacts. Facebook know exactly who I am, and all about me. Sigh. Should have used a ‘burner’ phone! Meanwhile, my friends have probably all received invitations to befriend a strangely-named new account and thought that the Facebook algorithms had gone a bit squiffy. Oh no. They’re working perfectly.

There is, however, something that still intrigues me. A noticeable aspect of the front page was the range of dog-related material. If this came from WhatsApp, how did they know I liked dogs? I guess it might be an Instagram link, but I really don’t have many dog pictures there either. Mmm.

No, I suspect this must be because I used my spaniel Tilly as the profile pic on the company account, just for fun. (Her modelling fees are very reasonable, and can be paid entirely in Bonios.) Anyway, if that is how they made the connection, then I can’t help wondering what other analysis they might be doing of people’s profile photos…?

Of course, I thought, I may be imagining it; they may just have decided that dogs were a cute and safe bet for the populace as a whole.

But I notice that there weren’t any pictures of cats on my page.

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4 Comments

You don’t even need a WhatsApp account. They maintain shadow profiles on anyone who is linked to anyone who has a Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp account;

https://www.theverge.com/2018/4/11/17225482/facebook-shadow-profiles-zuckerberg-congress-data-privacy

Most people unwittingly share their contacts with social media companies and they then start building a profile even if that person has never even visited their site.

Now you need to make an anonymous account with a cat photo to see if they are doing object recognition.

Or even better, use an adversarial image!

A few years ago I set up a Twitter account for a small cinema in Northern Italy , where I live. To populate the feed, I followed some of the usual cinematic suspects: the Oscars, Cannes Festival, Cinnecittà, and a couple of other cinema sites. Nothing else. I only Tweeted times of movies and links to reviews.

Before long I started to receive tweets from political parties – all right wing (the Lega) or extreme right win (Fratelli d’Italia), aside from the politcally schizophrenic but tech-savvy M5S. Nothing of course from the left-wing parties. There’s no doubt that the right, at least here in Italy has seen the future, and it’s called social media (apologies to John Landau).

[…] It only takes one bit of data…: Da facilidade com que os algoritmos das redes sociais agregam conhecimento sobre os seus utilizadores. […]

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