On the surface, this seems completely obvious. The picture you use as your profile picture on social media sites is often publicly displayed. It has a reason for being public though, it’s the landmark for your page. New people trying to befriend you will appreciate knowing you are who you are. It’s the one picture on our page that we all let slip through the cracks, but for good reason. So what’s the big deal? Well, as it turns out, it’s not a big deal…yet. But it will be soon. And it’s all because of the phone in your pocket.
Picture this, you’re wandering down the street in your nearest city, minding your business. Suddenly, a passer-by snaps a quick picture of your beautiful mug without you noticing. That person can now enter your face into a search and come back with all kinds of results. Results that extend further out then just your boring old Facebook. Results that are frankly, pretty scary.
Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of IT and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College, has put together a team to demonstrate just how easy this process is, and how much easier it’s getting every single day. He took his findings to Black Hat conference to warn others of the dangerous consequences of having a public profile image.
Acquisti showed the audience an experiment in which he asked his students to pose for a few webcam images. Using the images he was able find 31% of his students’ Facebook profiles in about 3 seconds. From there, he used one of his previous experiments to try and identify the students’ social security numbers. The experiment uses public clues to find the numbers with fairly reasonable accuracy. The results showed that he was able to find the first 5 digits of the individual’s social security number with 16% accuracy on the first attempt, and 27% accuracy after 4 attempts. The research was based on an algorithm he developed himself.
“These technologies challenge our expectation of anonymity in the digital or the physical world,” Acquisti said.
Tech is a two way street, with the good, comes the bad. Thankfully, Acquisti’s research isn’t completely reliable yet, but it’s getting there. Acquisti warns us that we need to take the appropriate steps now, to ensure that we aren’t so accessible in the future.