Researchers have demonstrated how to guess identity of Internet users based on whom they follow on Twitter and which websites they access

Stanford research shatters illusion of online anonymity

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Analysis of internet users' Twitter activity and the websites they access can reveal their identity with a level of accuracy up to 80 per cent, researchers have found.

In an experiment called Footprints, Stanford University researchers found that online anonymity is just an illusion as using smart algorithms to analyse which websites people access online and who they follow on Twitter can reveal who a particular user is with great accuracy.

During the first day of the experiment, the team was able to identify 11 out of 13 volunteers. Out of the total of 300 people who took part in the study the algorithm was able to identify 80 per cent.

“I think the first thing I messaged was: ‘This is kind of scary,’” said Stanford undergraduate Ansh Shukla, a senior studying mathematics who is working on the project with Stanford Engineering assistant professor Sharad Goel and Stanford computer science PhD student Jessica Su.

Participants in the experiment gave the researchers permission to gather information about which websites they accessed from Twitter. By comparing the accessed links with whom these people followed, the identity of individual users could be determined.

It sounds quite easy. For example person A follows the New York Times, which means he or she is statistically far more likely to click on links posted by the New York Times than someone who follows the Los Angeles Times.

“Although we happen to use Twitter, it’s not like Twitter is uniquely vulnerable,” Shukla said. “It doesn’t take a lot of recorded characteristics to have people become unique.”

Previously, the Stanford team demonstrated how easy it is to identify internet users by cross-referencing user data from Netflix and the Internet Movie Database.

“You should kind of go into the internet assuming that everything you go to someone might learn about someday,” Shukla said.

Cross-referencing databases is used by advertisers to identify individuals that access online content. The information can be used to openly target the person with advertising campaigns.

Shukla hopes that new data protection policies will eventually come about as more people realise how easy it is to track their digital footprints. He says new technologies will likely have to be created to enable the consumers to protect themselves. The current ‘do not track’ browser setting option is frequently being ignored by many websites.

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