Your computer knows you better than your Mom – why digital privacy is a must

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

January 30, 2015

Ever wondered what a world would be like where computers can simulate human interactions with each other, and can even tell what you are thinking or might do? Well now, thanks to research carried out at Cambridge University, we are getting ever closer to that reality.

At the Psychometrics Center at Cambridge University, head researcher Miss Wu Youyou’s team has designed a piece of computer software that can infer a lot about a person’s psychological traits from ‘mining’ as little as ten of their Facebook ‘Likes’  and when 150 ‘Likes’ were analyzed the software was able to tell more about a person than a work colleague or housemate.  In reality, most people have more than 200 ‘likes’ on Facebook, and, for this reason, the computer program was able to figure out more about a person’s behavioral patterns and psychological traits than even a family member.

The research was carried out by asking around 20,000 volunteers to take a 100 question self-assessment test that used five categories to give them a rating-  openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These results were then compared to similar ones gained from friends and family, and then lastly compared to what the computer software could infer from the volunteers’ Facebook ‘Likes.’

Described as a ‘milestone’ in getting closer to having more natural interactions between humans and machines, for me the research also rings a few alarm bells.   Imagine, for example, a computer that has voice recognition, facial recognition and knows all your Facebook likes.  With this new piece of software working alongside it,  what you would have is a computer that can recognize you as soon as you come into a  room, and communicate with you in a way that would seem extremely ‘human’ in terms of sensitivity.

Simultaneously (because the software can instantly know more about you than even a family member) what we are dealing with is a type of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can simulate human emotions such as understanding and empathy, and therefore has the potential to get very close to you, and perhaps even gain your trust.

Alarmingly, the first two parts of this ‘menu’ for a robot already exist, and Facebook has them. In fact, it would only take for Facebook to add this new software to its website, and it would instantly know more about you psychologically than just about any person you know. Obviously the potential for misuse is tremendous and perhaps most frighteningly of all, Miss Youyou was an intern at Facebook just months ago, so this Facebook robot isn’t just a fantasy that I have dreamed up in the dark recesses of my mind.

Co-author of the research, Dr David Stillwell, explains that the possible benefits of such a computer program are enormous,

“The results of such data analysis can be very useful in aiding people when making decisions… The ability to judge personality is an essential component of social living – from day-to-day decisions to long-term plans such as whom to marry, trust, hire, or elect as president.”

It’s pretty clear that employers would love to get their hands on such a powerful piece of software. This software would allow them to make better decisions during the interview process, and ultimately aid them in guaranteeing the best person for a job, and even if one applies this software to the possible pursuit of a partner, by using a dating website, for example, the advantage for an average person is pretty obvious.

In today’s world, however, it is pretty clear that privacy for citizens is not something high on governments’ priority lists. In fact, you only have to take a brief look at some of the articles filling up the news page here at Best VPN to get a very clear picture of the fact that these technological breakthroughs are being used to breach our trust, and to gather more and more metadata about us, rather than to help us.

With corporate money funding the campaigns of governments that are supposed to protect us, there is clearly greater need for across the board legislation designed to uphold our rights to privacy and control of our digital footprint.

The artificial intelligence revolution is happening all around us, and it probably won’t be long before, rather than corrupt corporations and governments (as if that isn’t bad enough already) it will be sentient, self-replicating robots who know everything about us. From the research paper,

“Popular culture has depicted robots that surpass humans in making psychological inferences. In the film Her, for example, the main character falls in love with his operating system. By curating and analyzing his digital records, his computer can understand and respond to his thoughts and needs much better than other humans, including his long-term girlfriend and closest friends. Our research, along with development in robotics, provides empirical evidence that such a scenario is becoming increasingly likely as tools for digital assessment come to maturity.”

One thing is for sure when it comes to digital privacy – we are fast running out of time to tighten up legislation before the problem is way too far out of control… perhaps it is already!

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