The technology available to evaluate a person’s digital footprint is already freakishly accurate. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Stanford University, for example, were able to demonstrate an algorithm’s ability to discern a person’s personality type. The five dimensions measured are typically viewed as representing a person’s overall personality. These dimensions are openness to experience, contentiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The degree to which each of these is present in an individual gives us insight into who they are.
To demonstrate this, researchers trained an algorithm using data from over 70,000 Facebook users. With as few as 10 data points, for example, likes, the algorithm could describe that person as well as a coworker. Using only 70 likes computers could describe a person as well as a friend. Using only 300 data points, the algorithm knew a person better than their spouse. Incredibly that’s not all researchers learned about subjects during the study. It was also apparent if a user had depression, engaged in drug use, or studied a particular subject in school.
One area this data can be valuable is within public health, specifically suicide prevention. Facebook, for example, already uses algorithms to help provide support options to those deemed at-risk. This service came about because Facebook noticed people had been using the platform to announce their suicides and in some cases, even the live stream them on the web.
Additionally, apps that track behavioral changes can help doctors monitor at-risk patients like that currently being studied at the University Hospital Carl Gustav Carus in Dresden. The app tracks a person’s social media and phone use, as well as their GPS data. This tracking allows doctors to receive an alert when a patient may not have left home for several days or have sent far fewer texts than average.
Although they may be used for good, algorithms can also be used for political, research, and commercial applications. For example, companies can analyze your data with terrifying accuracy and market to you based on your personality. They can also analyze your mood and market to you only when you’re happy, and therefore more likely to buy their product. This info can also be used in political campaigns. Companies, like Cambridge Analytica, can analyze your personality and send you targeted ads based on their findings. Companies have reported success in this endeavor and credit the victory of some candidates in recent elections to their statistical analysis.
The above video from TED discusses just how much these platforms know about us, and how to help protect your data.