It turns out Facebook and Twitter can track you even if you’re not on social media

Crisis after crisis has hit Facebook in the last few years, and almost all the issues have involved privacy. One of the storms the social media giant had to weather was when it was revealed that a data analytics company was able to collect information on 50 million people during the last election campaign because of Facebook’s inadequate privacy protection policies.

And Facebook is by no means the only social media platform to be accused of mismanaging private information. Twitter is currently facing a class action lawsuit by plaintiffs who believe that certain company policies are unlawful under the California Invasion of Privacy Act. As reported by the Expert Institute, the lawsuit alleges that Twitter violates its clients’ right to privacy by tracking links sent through direct messages.

With so many recent media reports revealing the porous nature of social media privacy policies, many people have decided to avoid these sites completely or have removed themselves from platforms that they were previously associated with. They believe that doing so is enough to protect their privacy. Unfortunately, as reported by Science Daily, new research by scientists from the Universities of Vermont and Adelaide reveals that their privacy could be at risk even if they have no online accounts because their identity and actions can be predicted from what their friends post online. (Related: Facebook ‘tramples’ on privacy law by illegally tracking internet users without consent.)

Your friends leave digital footprints on your behalf

For their study, the researchers gathered information from over 30 million tweets by 13,905 users. Their analysis of these messages revealed that how much of your information is exposed on social media is very much dependent on the people around you. In this way, Science Daily reports, it is very much like secondhand smoke:

With this data, they showed that information within the Twitter messages from 8 or 9 of a person’s contacts make it possible to predict that person’s later tweets as accurately as if they were looking directly at that person’s own Twitter feed.

The new study also shows that if a person leaves a social media platform — or never joined — the online posts and words of their friends still provide about 95% of the “potential predictive accuracy,” the scientists write, of a person’s future activities — even without any of that person’s data.

University of Vermont mathematician James Bagrow, the study’s lead author, warns that when you join a social media platform you are not only giving up your own information but also that of all your friends. (Related: ‘Trust crisis’ looms over tech industry as public grows weary of privacy scandals.)

Why privacy matters

This research raises important questions about how much someone’s online choices relate to their ability to maintain their own privacy and that of their contacts. As noted by Science Daily, the study means that companies, government agencies and others would be able to profile a person based on the online choices of their friends, even if they’ve never been part of any social media platforms or have deleted all their accounts.

Lewis Mitchell, the study’s co-author and a senior lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Adelaide, Australia, warns that, “There’s no place to hide in a social network.”

The study’s findings confirm that social networking is a goldmine of information, not just on the person being profiled, but also on all of their friends, whether or not they are part of a specific social media network.

And the scary thing is that in a world of immense inter-connectivity there is almost nothing any of us can do about it.

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