Leaking privacy and shadow profiles in online social networks

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Science Advances  04 Aug 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 8, e1701172
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701172

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Social interaction and data integration in the digital society can affect the control that individuals have on their privacy. Social networking sites can access data from other services, including user contact lists where nonusers are listed too. Although most research on online privacy has focused on inference of personal information of users, this data integration poses the question of whether it is possible to predict personal information of nonusers. This article tests the shadow profile hypothesis, which postulates that the data given by the users of an online service predict personal information of nonusers. Using data from a disappeared social networking site, we perform a historical audit to evaluate whether personal data of nonusers could have been predicted with the personal data and contact lists shared by the users of the site. We analyze personal information of sexual orientation and relationship status, which follow regular mixing patterns in the social network. Going back in time over the growth of the network, we measure predictor performance as a function of network size and tendency of users to disclose their contact lists. This article presents robust evidence supporting the shadow profile hypothesis and reveals a multiplicative effect of network size and disclosure tendencies that accelerates the performance of predictors. These results call for new privacy paradigms that take into account the fact that individual privacy decisions do not happen in isolation and are mediated by the decisions of others.

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