Are your Facebook friends real people, or artificial intelligence agents masquerading as humans in order to steal your personal information?
The Vancouver Sun reports today that researchers at the University of British Columbia managed to collect 250GB of personal information from unwitting victims in a mere eight weeks, with the help of "fake Facebook profiles created and controlled by computer code." These so-called socialbots were able to befriend Facebook users by sending friend requests to a random group of some 5,000 people, some of whom were apparently quite willing to become online friends with someone they had never actually met.
The authors of "The Socialbot Network: When Bots Socialize for Fame and Money" - UBC researchers Yazan Boshmaf, Ildar Muslukhov, Konstantin Beznosov and Matei Ripenau -- say that once the bots were "friended", all they had to do was network in order to gather large amount of data, such as "email addresses, phone numbers and other profile information, all of which have monetary value."
The apparent implication of the UBC study, which will be presented next month at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference in Orlando, Fla., seems to be that an army of computers lies in wait, charming us with programmed charisma and duping us with coded anthropomorphism before stealing all of our carefully guarded secrets and turning against us.
But what if this isn't a sinister story? What if the bots looking for friends on Facebook were just lonely, and looking to connect with someone? Is it so far-fetched to imagine programmed intelligence developing a need for companionship?
Well, probably not. Socialbots are designed to mine for data, after all. But it's tempting to imagine, if only for a moment, a different possibility: