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Facebook Figured Out My Family Secrets, And It Won't Tell Me How (gizmodo.com) 281

Kashmir Hill, reporting for Gizmodo: Rebecca Porter and I were strangers, as far as I knew. Facebook, however, thought we might be connected. Her name popped up this summer on my list of "People You May Know," the social network's roster of potential new online friends for me. [...] She showed up on the list after about a month: an older woman, living in Ohio, with whom I had no Facebook friends in common. I did not recognize her, but her last name was familiar. My biological grandfather is a man I've never met, with the last name Porter, who abandoned my father when he was a baby. My father was adopted by a man whose last name was Hill, and he didn't find out about his biological father until adulthood. The Porter family lived in Ohio. Growing up half a country away, in Florida, I'd known these blood relatives were out there, but there was no reason to think I would ever meet them. A few years ago, my father eventually did meet his biological father, along with two uncles and an aunt, when they sought him out during a trip back to Ohio for his mother's funeral. None of them use Facebook. I sent the woman a Facebook message explaining the situation and asking if she was related to my biological grandfather. "Yes," she wrote back. Rebecca Porter, we discovered, is my great aunt, by marriage. She is married to my biological grandfather's brother; she met him 35 years ago, the year after I was born. Facebook knew my family tree better than I did "I didn't know about you," she told me, when we talked by phone. "I don't understand how Facebook made the connection." How Facebook had linked us remained hard to fathom. My father had met her husband in person that one time, after my grandmother's funeral. They exchanged emails, and my father had his number in his phone. But neither of them uses Facebook. Nor do the other people between me and Rebecca Porter on the family tree.
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Facebook Figured Out My Family Secrets, And It Won't Tell Me How

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  • I used it back during farmville days just to play farmville.

    Then one day, they required my real mobile number to log in.

    And that was it for facebook.

    • Interesting. I never have given it my number, but could still login last time I tried. It does nag for it though.

    • "Then one day, they required my real mobile number to log in."

      You can buy used prepaid simcards by the dozen for 3 bucks on ebay, useful for this, or whatsapp on tablets or for login to newspapers you want to troll.

      • by Kaenneth ( 82978 )

        Yeah, and when they geolocate to your house, they tie the data together.

      • In my case it wouldn't have worked.

        I got a pink/red screen and it required a validated mobile number to get past. I tried a couple random numbers and I tried a valid google phone number. After several days, I gave up.

    • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) * on Friday August 25, 2017 @03:44PM (#55085647) Homepage Journal

      Eh, that was OK for me. It's when the FB app asked for my address book was when I uninstalled. I'm not authorized to give them all of my family and friends' info that they've trusted me with. Sadly, I don't think most other people take that kind of thing into consideration.

      The mobile version of FB works fine. And you can even still use FB messenger in your mobile browser if you select "Request desktop site"

  • by jandrese ( 485 ) <kensama@vt.edu> on Friday August 25, 2017 @11:49AM (#55083789) Homepage Journal
    Maybe Facebook sucked in a big genealogical database at some point and started using it for the recommendations? If the information is out there there is a good bet Facebook and Google are adding it to their databases.
    • by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:08PM (#55083997)

      Ancestry.com is low quality (most of the data is not properly verified).

      There's a good hunk of my family tree in there, and it's over 50% bullshit entered by a well-intentioned relative who doesn't understand how to do proper genealogical research.

      Still, it would pretty much have to be an improvement over 'randomly connect two Facebook accounts' so it would not surprise me to find out Facebook has licenced the data.

      • by Chadster ( 459808 ) * on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:51PM (#55084403)

        Facebook keeps showing me a person I might know and the only, ONLY, place I have ever seen the name before is in my Ancestry DNA match list. Never emailed. No common friends. We don't have a common ancestor in our trees yet and are about 5th cousins. The person lives in a different country, though I have visited the city and checked into places on FB.

        • Perhaps you visited your ancestry DNA match list and even clicked on the person's name while a tracker was active from some other site and the data was either gathered directly by or sold to Facebook. I think the trackers are responsible for a lot of this.

          Or, there is always the other person. You don't know what they have done. They may have actually searched for you directly on Facebook.

          I think this latter path explains most of the harder mysteries. We rarely consider what the other person has revealed. I

      • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

        Yes, there are a lot of errors on Ancestry.com, but also a lot of useful information to jump-start your own research. If a family tree connection is not documented, you have someone to contact to ask why they made that particular connection.

    • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:18PM (#55084097)

      Or Ancestry's DNA test database.

      "Looks like you share multiple alleles with these random people, would you like to introduce drama to your family tree?"

    • by mikael ( 484 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:53PM (#55084425)

      I had some weirdness with Linkedin when it started sending me adverts and articles relating to living with someone with terminal cancer. Turns out one of my parents cats had colon cancer and they didn't want to tell me. So I would guess that the algorithms use a kind of diffusion process. Every person has their own unique ID number, then all bits of information about them get linked to that ID number. Each person also had links to other people. Then deductive logic can be applied. If someone is a skydiver, then all those links can be updated to have "knows someone who is a skydiver". Maybe this gets weighted by the number of people they know or how many links it takes.

      Other time, I looked up something like "protecting property from grizzly bears" while renting an apartment downtown. Then I started receiving catalogs for bear traps, camo gear and hunting rifles.

      • by slacktide ( 796664 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @01:30PM (#55084685)
        Good thing you didn't google for "Enriching uranium with centrifuges."
        • That needs to be an app. Something that chooses a random sensitive topic and makes a few related google searches in a logical progression at a rate that makes it look like human activity.

          Bomb making, disposing of dead hookers, and presidential assassination tips would be awesome.

          • I've often thought about this type of app - but without the sensitive topic thought.

            There are many things that the search engines and sites using trackers find out about us that are just annoying violations of privacy - like who we are related to or know. Other examples are products that we are interested in, shows that we like, churches and other organizations we attend, what times we are usually awake and surfing the web, where we've traveled to, etc.

            It would be interesting to explore whether an app or ex

    • Facial recognition. Facebook has proven it has excellent facial recognition, and in my own testing, will even recognize people in scanned / old photos from long before FB existed.

      Given that people a) gravitate towards similar looking people (dating, marriage, friendships) and b) are related to people who look more similar to themselves -- it makes sense FB is going to recommend friends who the person might be interested in or related.
  • Possibly Facebook's algorithm "mis" identified the friend as a face in one of her pictures (and because of genetics they would look biologically similar).

    I'm more intrigued about how the one night stand got identified.
  • Random Chance? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @11:50AM (#55083793)

    In all seriousness... Given the billion plus people on Facebook, and the many multiples of that potential contacts it shows, it's entirely possible that this is just a coincidence. I would wager it's a lot like the birthday paradox, that is, to have a 50% chance of two people in a group to share a birth date, you only need 21 people in the group. Between that, and degrees of separation and so forth, it's entirely possible for some weird distant link through many unconnected people to wind up linking you back to someone you know.

    I've noticed connections between people I know from opposite ends of the continent, that to my knowledge would have no people in common, yet they have one connector, or two, or whatever. Basically she could have been your brother's friend's uncles's boss's neighbour's gardener, and if she was showed as a potential link, you'd have no idea about the connection.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      Or it could simply be data mining. These people could all be unequivocally connected by a vital records search. The cost wouldn't be prohibitive for a company Facebook's size.

    • Sure. But if you're implying that Facebook is automatically digging into census records (or any other public records) then the question burning in my mind is why the hell is Facebook digging into public records in the first place???
      • Re:Census Records (Score:4, Insightful)

        by redmid17 ( 1217076 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:15PM (#55084063)
        They are public records? It's data to consume. Is that a serious question?

        I don't mean that in a playful rhetorical way. I mean that in a serious way.
        • Yes, it's a serious question. Regardless of Facebooks record of intentionally snooping, regardless of it being well-known that Facebook regards it's users as a 'product' to be exploited, why is it going to the extra step of essentially doing background checks on it's users to make connections to people that don't even use Facebook? To be as creepy as possible? To invade the privacy of people who don't use and don't want to use Facebook? Facebook is CANCER and needs to be EXCISED, plain and simple. They've c
          • by guruevi ( 827432 )

            Because it has value. Public record data is free. Facebook, unlike what most people think, doesn't actually provide a social networking platform, it is a data aggregation and ad delivery platform. And targeted ads are much more lucrative than non-targeted ads, first of all, it gives you more space to publish ads and second because advertisers pay for it.

            This sort of matching behavior is just a coincidence, it matches you, because if you do connect to family and friends, your network becomes more valuable.

      • "Why not?"

        -- Zuckerberg

      • why the hell is Facebook digging into public records in the first place???

        To be able to suggest exactly the sort of Facebook friending that they did. Establishing and indexing these sorts of relationships for advertisers is how they make money, you know.

      • Sure. But if you're implying that Facebook is automatically digging into census records (or any other public records) then the question burning in my mind is why the hell is Facebook digging into public records in the first place???

        Perhaps the more relevant question is why the hell you're even asking that question. Do you still not understand exactly what Facebook creates value from?

        If you were a woodworker by trade, and someone offered you a football field of premium hardwood that's already chopped and ready for you to create products to sell, you're telling me you would sit back and question why you would not or should not take it?

        Exactly.

  • It's actually simple (Score:3, Informative)

    by sentiblue ( 3535839 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @11:51AM (#55083821)
    FB makes connection when people get on FB using the same network connection or from the same vicinity, especially after multiple times...

    FB recommended me a few people who are completely strangers but after seeing their face carefully, I realized I've seen them at a local bar few times.
  • You know, whatever page you load that has, for instance, a small embedded iframe that connects you to Facebook... So maybe they won't tell you how, because you don't have the necessary technical skills to get it?
  • My guess (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Headw1nd ( 829599 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @11:57AM (#55083891)
    Plot twist: FaceBook can't tell her, because they don't know. They've long ago given control of this functionality to machine learning algorithms and primitive AI and they have no idea what it's doing either.
    • Re:My guess (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve ( 949321 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:33PM (#55084249)

      Plot twist: FaceBook can't tell her, because they don't know. They've long ago given control of this functionality to machine learning algorithms and primitive AI and they have no idea what it's doing either.

      Yes. Very likely this. Or it could be blind luck and nothing more. Facebook is estimated to have over 2 billion users. They periodically suggest I may wish to know people who aren't related to me in any way, they just happen to know somebody I know. It could just be that maybe the author and this aunt both like, say, the same TV show and follow it on Facebook and that led to a connection that was pure luck and had nothing really to do with a family relationship.

      I wish Facebook could find my relatives as I've got cousins on one side of the family that I've lost touch with. I found 2 of them by spending some time searching. Facebook didn't find them at all. And to show you how "nice" that side of my family is, both rejected my friend request on Facebook. The author probably doesn't know how incredibly lucky they were to get a message through to the aunt. If you aren't friends with someone on Facebook and send them a message, by default you go to a spam part of Facebook messages that doesn't open by default and the vast majority of users never look at because they don't know it exists. I've also found cousins on the other side of my family who did accept my friend request and in no way did Facebook help us to find each other. It actually took the blind luck of a cousin I am in touch with finding an entry on Find A Grave that another cousin none of us knew how to contact had placed there for a common relative. The Find A Grave listing had an email address that we used to ultimately get back in touch with 6 family members we'd all lost track of. So yeah, I am not convinced that Facebook really knows the author's family connection as much as they just suggested a connection for another reason and it was just pure lack that there was a family connection.

  • by MerlTurkin ( 598333 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:00PM (#55083913)
    Keep using Facebook you dopes! LOL!
  • Number in phone... Whatsapp?

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:04PM (#55083953) Journal

    I've had Facebook comments that were liked by an old girlfriend, my ex-wife and my current wife of 20+ years. If at any point they are able to compare notes, I'm pretty much fucked.

    • *sigh* - sounds like you have crossed the streams. You're fucked. If you have something to conceal you should have three different facebook accounts (yea, I know, against their terms and conditions) for the different social bubbles you keep. Or, less appealing, control the status updates so the bubbles are separated and the three would not bump into each other on your status updates.

      • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @01:35PM (#55084727) Journal

        sigh* - sounds like you have crossed the streams. You're fucked. If you have something to conceal you should have three different facebook accounts

        Not so much that I have something to conceal, but it's just not best relationship practices to have your exes talk to your current, you know? The conversation would go something like this:

        1) He's an idiot.
        2) He's such an idiot.
        3) No shit. It's great to have independent confirmation that he's an idiot.

        I don't need that kind of tsuris. Better they should each have to confirm for themselves that I'm an idiot.

  • Facebook buys up lots of public records to feed their algorthms

  • DNA Analysis. Facebook and Me.

    Then they can do even deeper linking of people. Maybe you can find out who your daddy really is and collect some back child support.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:14PM (#55084049)

    Usually I hate being Anon on here, but this one is a bit to important to not mention.

    TL:DR my late step father used to pimp me out to a pedophile bicker friend of his. Happened when I was about 11 to 13. During that time I ended up having to... well be kind of shield for my younger siblings too. Fast forward until I'm about 19 and my step father dies from heart problems from the meth the aforementioned mentioned biker was selling him. No one in my immediately family was using Facebook at the time, but all of a sudden we start getting hangup calls from some number we don't know. We eventually found out one our aunts had been putting all of these family photos up on Facebook and tagged us all in them and given that she's an idiot about security.

    Now, my story ended better than it could and the police were actually able to find my abuser since he already had some warrents on him as is. But non the less, the damage had already been done to the security and piece of my entire family.

  • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:15PM (#55084061)

    A few years ago, my father eventually did meet his biological father, along with two uncles and an aunt, when they sought him out during a trip back to Ohio for his mother's funeral. None of them use Facebook.

    You see that little 'f' logo in the upper right of slashdot's page? That's not a simple icon graphic with a link to Facebook. It's a complex script which drops a cookie or figures out some other way to track your computer, and reports which web page you viewed that icon on. So even if you don't have a Facebook account, Facebook is still tracking you. Not as you, but as user #92183656156.

    Every time you visit a web page with that 'f' icon (most major sites), you are being tracked. And all it takes is one time when you enter an email address into a web page, and they're able to deduce that user #92183656156 that they've been tracking is in fact your_name@gmail.com, from which point they can cross-reference to deduce your phone number, home address, where you work, how much money you make, who your relatives are, etc. even though you don't have a Facebook account.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by in10se ( 472253 )

      No, that's actually just a simple icon graphic with a link to Facebook. While some people use the Facebook SDK and plugins, even with all my ad/script blockers turned off, Slashdot doesn't load any Facebook content.

    • Stupid question: don't blockers like uBlock prevent this (or at least hinder it)?

      If not, what would be the tool or technique one would use to disable this?
      IS there a way to do so, and still have a usable web-browsing ability?

  • by Rick Schumann ( 4662797 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:21PM (#55084139) Journal
    Plain and simple. People who are not users of Facebook should not be dragged into Facebook just because Facebook wants to. Screw them.
  • I recall reading some time ago that if you select two US citizens at random, there is a 1 in 30 chance that they have a mutual friend. I'm no statistics or probability expert (as you can probably already tell) but I would be tempted to ascribe the coincidental appearance of this person's great aunt as simple probability, coupled with 'cocktail party effect' name recognition.

  • The thing is, is that Facebook et al have access to truely massive data sets, that they can slice and dice in every conceivable way they see fit. They can use algorithms to identify correlations that an average person would never even consider making, and the results can be downright frighteningly uncanny.

    Another example is when a father found out his daughter was pregnant because of marketing material from Target (I think it was Target...). I think even the daughter wasn't entirely sure. But Target figu

  • by 0xdeadbeef ( 28836 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @12:42PM (#55084333) Homepage Journal

    They exchanged emails, and my father had his number in his phone.

    Are people really this dumb? They let people import contacts. They keep the email addresses and phone numbers of their users. It's a simple graph query.

    • They exchanged emails, and my father had his number in his phone.

      Are people really this dumb? They let people import contacts. They keep the email addresses and phone numbers of their users. It's a simple graph query.

      But there is more than just that going on. I've had Facebook suggest that I friend a neighbor that I didn't even know the name of. I moved in next door, and talked to her on a daily basis when our dogs would run into each other on walks, but I never knew her name, and she never knew mine. We are no longer neighbors but LinkedIn now asks me if I want to add her to my network. Neither of us had a phone number for the other and it was a solid 2-3 months AFTER Facebook suggested that we be friends before sh

  • A few years ago, my father eventually did meet his biological father, along with two uncles and an aunt, when they sought him out during a trip back to Ohio for his mother's funeral. None of them use Facebook.

    I'm guessing this is what happened:

    People talk. At least one of the five people (your father, his father, and the two uncles and aunt whom your father met) must have told other people about the meeting. Then the word spread. "Hey guess what. Mr. Porter met his son, a man named Mr. Hill. Mr. Hill also met two uncles and an aunt. Mr. Hill has a son named X."

    Then someone who heard the news researched to learn more about the family tree, to understand it all. (Some people just love that kind of stuff - family t

  • It is obvious to me that FB pay for info from other companies. Some other have mentioned clues that would indicate that this link probably came from Ancestry.com. When I was dating last year, I would get recommendations for women that I had met and went out with from dating websites. For the most part, the recommendations were for women that I didn't actually end up dating (the vast majority of them).

    I thought that maybe the women had been checking out my background, but now I'm not so sure.

  • She, herself may not have searched for you or anyone in your network, but people in her network may have done so. The shape and number of those connections may have revealed that bond. That's one way Facebook could divine these connections. Graph theory is neat and eerie.

  • All Facebook suggested is that there was a connection. it didn't say "here's one of your distant relatives". As other replies point out, there are a billion ways a connection might be drawn. That was it. If FB had suggested a family relationship it might be a bit more mysterious.
  • So both you and your aunt use Facebook and you mentioned that she exchanged emails with your father. I'm assuming you've also exchanged e-mails with your father. I've heard suspicions of Facebook attempting to log in to the e-mail account you used to register with Facebook. If your Facebook and e-mail passwords were the same at the time your registered, it would be possible for Facebook to scan all of your e-mail and create a comprehensive list of all your contacts. If both you and your aunt used the sa
    • I think the idea that facebook is logging into email accounts is going way too far. The legal sh*tstorm from that wouldn't be worth it. I'm guessing it's more like LinkedIn where they get access to your contacts, which you may have exlicitly or unknowingly implicitly agreed to let them do at some point. Pretty easy for them to connect the dots from there.

  • shadow profiles (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nicolaiplum ( 169077 ) on Friday August 25, 2017 @04:02PM (#55085813)

    Remember Facebook creates shadow profiles for people they think they can track (such as via the website "like" feature) but they do not yet know the identity of, and they can work out the connections between shadow profiles.

    It is feasible that they connected:

    Facebook user1 -- shadow -- shadow -- facebook user2

    Then said "user1, do you know user2?"

    In a country with good privacy laws, such tracking would not be allowed. The USA is not such a country.

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