Psychological profiling on the Web

Security researchers are devising a way to monitor people's online moods in real time, bringing privacy concerns with social networks to a whole new level.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
2 min read

Yesterday I ranted on Facebook about how annoyed I was with it. I've also had my share of emotional posts about various topics on Twitter. And I'm frequently opinionated in my blog postings on this site.

Unless you are following my writings on all the various sites, you might not know how cranky and critical I can be. My emotions and opinions may not be of concern to anyone beyond my close personal friends and co-workers (who have to listen to my occasional verbal tirades). But if you did care, there might soon be an easy way to track my online mood swings--a digital emo-meter, if you will.

Nitesh Dhanjani, senior manager and leader of application security services at Ernst & Young, and Akshay Aggarwal, Microsoft InfoSec team's practice manager for North America, are developing a "proof-of-concept" tool that analyzes a feed from peoples' various online presences. The dashboard looks at the stream for expressions of emotion in real time and uses colors to indicate different emotions.

Inspired by the site WeFeelFine.org, the researchers plan to unveil their tool at the BlueHat Security briefings Microsoft will host in October, and at the Hack in the Box conference in Kuala Lumpur later that month.

Nitesh Dhanjani Nitesh Dhanjani

"It will tell you what's going on in your brain," Dhanjani said. "Reading the mind or emotions, people haven't looked at that before" on social networks.

We all know how photos on social networks can get us into trouble. There's the 22-year-old student who was sentenced to more than 5 years in jail for a drunk driving accident that killed her passenger after the judge said photos of her drinking on her MySpace page after the accident showed her lack of remorse. And then there's the bank intern whose photo of him at a Halloween party on Facebook was seen by his bosses who thought he had skipped work because of a family emergency.

But our own comments about our mental state can also be very revealing, to friends and enemies alike, said Dhanjani. He foreshadowed his research on his blog last month blog and elaborated on it in several subsequent interviews with CNET News.

Such a psychological analysis dashboard could be used for predicting and possibly preventing negative behavior. For instance, if law enforcement had been able to monitor the hateful postings one MySpace user wrote about his wife on his blog, immediately followed by a post in which he talked about how much he loves her, authorities may have been alerted to erratic psychological behavior that eventually led to his murdering her, according to Dhanjani.

In another scenario, people could use the tool to monitor other people's emotional states and either do things to try to make them feel better, or worse, he said.

"It's almost like it gives other people the power to play God and glean what's happening inside your head," Dhanjani said. "I can see implications for economics, business, and psychology."

And I thought behaviorally targeted ads were scary!