A first photo of a new mom and baby. A toddler paddling in the water at the beach. Post these scenes on Facebook, and you’re sure to set off a storm of “Likes” and messages from friends and relatives.
But think twice before hitting the share button, says a team of researchers at New York University. In a study presented at a conference in May, they show how Facebook posts could supplement public information to deliver a revealing portrait of not just the parents but also the kids — years before they’re old enough to use the social network themselves.
In a demonstration, the team matched information on some 2,300 Facebook profiles, such as names and birthdays, with information in a voter registry that included home addresses and phone numbers. They did a similar experiment on photos pulled from Instagram.
Someone with more nefarious motives could make those connections too, the authors explain. It’s information that could be useful to identity thieves or criminals. Commercial “data brokers” could begin cultivating a profile of the child, as could surveillance agencies like the National Security Agency.
Perhaps their broadest concern: Young people don’t have a say in what social networks know about them. The data collection is starting long before they’re old enough to make their own choices.
“We had a decision about whether we want to join Facebook,” said Tehila Minkus, a graduate student at NYU and one of the authors on the study. “But our kids are on Facebook before they’re old enough to walk or talk or read, and they won’t have the option to keep a low profile when they grow up.”
Minkus acknowledges that going dark online is not really a practical solution today. She shares photos of her kids on e-mail — but not Facebook or WhatsApp — because that medium gives her better control about which individuals and companies see those photographs.
For the more technically savvy, encrypting photographs is another option, Minkus said. Friends and family can be given the decryption key, while Facebook and other third parties won’t have access.
For the rest of us, there are other small changes that could make a difference: Minkus suggests not adding a name to the photos being shared. That way, close family members and friends can enjoy the photograph, but it becomes less of a data point for everybody else.