The Unintended Consequences of Using Social Media

“The point is, we really don’t know how this information will be used.” 

–Alessandro Acquisti, privacy economist        

The reasons we use social media are usually pretty simple: We want to keep up with old friends, stay up-to-date on current events, or pass the time with entertaining articles and videos. But we sometimes fail to consider the digital legacy we leave. Our social media activity can do us lasting harm — often, in ways we never imagined. Although “liking” posts and updating friends on what we had for dinner might seem straightforward enough, some experts on computer privacy believe that we are revealing more about ourselves online than we realize.

Just Below the Surface — What You May Already Know

Savvy social media users generally understand some of the basic ways their information is used. We know that most hiring managers (93 per cent) will review our social media profiles before making a hiring decision, and that sharing certain photos or posts might endanger our chances of getting a job we love. We know that if we keep “liking” photos of mass-marketed cheeseburgers, targeted ads for fast food will appear in our Facebook feed. Those advertisers already know our gender, age, and hometown; now they also know we’re interested in burgers … and they’ll try to sell us more of them.

Further Down — What You May Not Know

It’s not always easy to foresee how our information might be be used in the future. Social networking profiles are already used in a wide variety of civil and criminal cases, such as insurance fraud, drug offenses, and custody battles. While none of this may be relevant to you today, it could dramatically affect your future. You never know when you might be called as a witness in a case, and how your social media activity could be used to discredit you or contradict your statements. We may not be aware of how sophisticated a social media network’s marketing efforts can be. When we sign up for a “free” site, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, we become not only the consumer, but the product. In the Terms of Service, we sign away our rights to how our private data will be used, and to whom it may be sold. Invasions of privacy can be insidious. And once information is out there in the ether, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to erase.

Way Down the Rabbit Hole — What May Scare You

Many social media users have their geo-location feature turned on, meaning that your precise location can be tracked in real-time by whoever wants to. But even if you turn of your geo-location, photos you upload can contain metadata, which may include all manner of information, such as the location the photo was taken. A vast amount of data about you can be collected and used in unexpected ways, and you may have little or no control over its use. In her popular TED talk, computer scientist Jennifer Golbeck explains that analysts can learn a lot about users, from intelligence to political affiliation, by studying their Facebook activity. “The action of liking reflects back the common attributes of other people who have done,” she explains, “so you can ‘like’ these pages, you can post these things about yourself, and then we can infer a completely unrelated trait about you based on a combination of likes or the type of words that you’re using, or even what your friends are doing, even if you’re not posting anything. It’s things that are inherent in what you’re sharing that reveal these other traits, which may be things you want to keep private and that you had no idea you were sharing.” To put all that into perspective, “liking” something as seemingly innocuous as a page about curly fries could translate into all manner of information about you, such as your religious beliefs, political affiliations, sexual orientation, and anything that identifies you in any way. Those identifiers will be further analyzed to make more inferences about you. It’s what Golbeck calls the “curly fries conundrum.” Data scientists can mine your social media data and sell that information to the highest bidder, such as a lawyer, criminal, boyfriend, or a government official. It may be today, or five or 10 years from now — and you may never know it’s happening. It’s alarming to consider that “liking” a curly fries page might determine aspects of your future that you can’t fathom in the present. But what if, in some near-future world, banks, retailers, and insurance providers routinely scan your profile and infer things about your character? What if they use that information to convert your personality into a set of mathematical probabilities, to determine whether you’re likely to be a good borrower, or to determine your health risks or insurance premiums? And if your social media posts can be analyzed to predict future behavior, such as the probability of engaging in political demonstrations, terrorist activities, or committing adultery or homicide, what’s to stop law enforcement from investigating you before you ever commit a crime? Such analysis could determine all manner of possible futures, such as:
  • Whether you get approved for a mortgage
  • How much you pay for a product or service
  • Whether a university admits you
  • Your insurance premiums
  • Whether you get a promotion
  • Whether you’re allowed to become a citizen of some country
  • Whether someone decides to marry you
  • Whether you’re targeted for criminal investigation
  Whether you “like” curly fries today could translate into a prison sentence tomorrow. What’s ultimately at risk are your basic rights and freedoms, which may be curtailed without your ever being the wiser.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Kusic and Kusic Private Investigators blog.

About the Author

Laura-Lee Walker is an open-source intelligence analyst at Kusic and Kusic Private Investigators in Vancouver, B.C. She specializes in litigation support, background checks, and online investigations.