What can social networks on the internet know about persons who are friends of members, but have no user profile of their own? Researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing of Heidelberg University studied this question.
Any social network platform divides society into members and non-members. Relationships between non-members whose e-mail contact has been revealed by a member (red lines) can be accurately inferred based on relationships between members (black lines) and their connection patterns to non-members (green lines).
Picture: Ágnes Horvát
In an online social network, it is possible to infer information about non-members, for instance by using so-called friend-finder applications. When new Facebook members register, they are asked to make available their full list of e-mail contacts, even of those people who are not Facebook members. “This very basic knowledge of who is acquainted with whom in the social network can be tied to information about who users know outside the network. In turn, this association can be used to deduce a substantial portion of relationships between non-members”, explains Ágnes Horvát, who conducts research at the IWR.
“Our investigation made clear the potential social networks have for inferring information about non-members. The results are also astonishing because they are based on mere contact data”, emphasises Prof. Hamprecht. Many social network platforms, however, have far more data about users, such as age, income, education, or where they live. Using this data, a corresponding technical infrastructure and other structural properties of network analysis, the researchers believe that the prediction accuracy could be significantly improved. “Overall our project illustrates that we as a society have to come to an understanding about the extent to which relational data about persons who did not provide their consent may be used”, says Prof. Zweig.The results of the research were published in “PLoS ONE”.
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