Professor Uses Online, Offline Data to Connect the Dots Of Your Digital Life


Even before its $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, Facebook was home to more than 60 billion photos and was adding about 250 million more each day.

But what if those photos — even your photos — could lead people to identity you offline?

Last year, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher conducted an experiment by “connecting the dots” in people’s digital lives via off-the-shelf facial-recognition software. The researcher, Alessandro Acquisiti, was able to match subjects whose photos were posted on a dating site to their profile photos on Facebook.

He searched dating sites for users within 50 miles of a ZIP code and correlated them with approximately 110,000 Facebook profiles of users who also lived in that same area. Within 15 hours he was able to positively identify 10% of the users on online dating sites, according to Acquisiti, and narrowing the geographic area increased the match rate.

Even scarier, Acquisti discovered he could correctly guess Social Security numbers 28% of the time within four tries.

“The goal here is not to generate fear, but we are very close to a point where the convergence of technologies will make it possible for online and offline data to blend seamlessly…and for strangers on the street to predict certain information about you from your picture,” Acquisti said.

He and his team also built a smartphone app to demonstrate “augmented reality,” using both offline and online data to overlay personal and private information over the target’s face on the device’s screen.

“The seamless merging of online and offline data that face recognition and social media make possible raises the issue of what privacy will mean in an augmented reality world,” Acquisti said.


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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.

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