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The results of a study published in New Scientist magazine have revealed that social networking sites like Facebook may be able to infer details about people we are friends with offline, even if the friend in question doesn't have a profile on the network.
Rather ominously known as "shadow connections", the study found that by looking at the information we publish online, computer programmes can predict personal details about our offline friends with a relatively high level of accuracy - things like location, personality and sexual orientation.
The study was carried out by Fred Hamprecht, of Heidelberg University in Germany who, together with a team of researchers, took data on the friendships between tens of thousands of Facebook users collected from five university campuses in 2005. The team labelled a subset from each university "members". The rest were "non-members" and treated within the model as if they did not have an online profile.
They then created a fiendishly difficult-to-suss-out diagram, re-published below for your amusement:
Anyway, the outcome of all this intense and complicated research was that a computer programme was able to predict personal information about non-members (i.e. people not on the social network) and was right 40% of the time - compare this with a random guessing approach, in which only 2% of predicted details were actually correct, and this becomes pretty alarming.
So, it's possible, but are social networks actually doing it?
Well, according to New Scientist Facebook declined to comment, however a student accused Facebook Ireland of doing something very similar last October. Although no hard evidence was found, Facebook Ireland was accused of creating 'shadow profiles' for non-users.
But, if they were engaging in such activity, what are the benefits? There's data obviously, a valuable commodity in anyone's book - Facebook could use such data to assess demographics on and off Facebook and produce marketing strategies designed to target those less likely to create or sustain a Facebook profile...
That's the first thing I thought of, can you think of any others?