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Planning Retirement Online

Be careful about your online ID

Last year I booked a weekend away for a friend at a hotel in Torquay. Even now I am still getting adverts for Torquay hotels and holidays dropping onto my screen as I visit various pages online.

It is extraordinary how this works – who tracked down that I had booked this holiday; who then contacted the other companies to pay for their adverts with a similar theme to appear on my computer?

In fact, the information gathered about us from our online usage is staggering. For most of us who were brought up before the digital era, it can also be quite disconcerting. But it is something we will have to get used to.

The latest report says that computers can actually be better at judging our character and personality than our friends and even close family members.

A team from Cambridge University has just completed a major experiment based around a new algorithm and involving tens of thousands of volunteers. Mainly based on responses to a wide range of activities on Facebook, data was collected on over 70,000 people and used to work out key character traits including how open, agreeable, conscientious, extraverted and neurotic each person was. Basic aspects such as sexual orientation and political affiliations were easy to work out.

To check the final analysis, the same volunteers were then asked to complete a personality questionnaire and also get their friends and family to add their input on character traits.

The final results and analysis indicated that not only were the computer results incredibly accurate, but in many cases they pinpointed traits that certain family or colleagues had picked up but of which the volunteer was totally unaware.

Dr Wu Youyou, from Cambridge's Psychometrics Centre who lead the research, said that computers have a huge memory capacity and can access a huge amount of relevant information.

“It is intuitive to think that people close to us know us very well, so it is really impressive that computers can be even better,” she said.

Dr Wu said that one aspect is that friends and relations often only see us in limited situations, while computers have more information to go on.

Cambridge’s Dr David Stillwell, who was also involved in the study, said that the results of such data analysis could be useful in aiding people when making decisions.

Already it is known that employers can turn to digital analysis in assessing potential employees and leading brands are using data “mining” to develop personalised marketing strategies.

The key aspect for our age is to be aware that everything we do and say on line could be open to interpretation by a range of bodies who might use the data for all sorts of purposes. Whenever you are online, you will be leaving a digital footprint, and we have little control over the data that is being collected about us.

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