Mainland scientists have created a computer program they say can determine an internet user's personality with 90 per cent accuracy, but they fear it may too dangerous to let out of the lab without greater protection of people's privacy online.
The program was developed by researchers at the Computational Cyber Psychology Lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It gathers publicly available details of a person's activities online, such as the daily number of Sina Weibo posts, and matches them with one of 800 different psychological profiles.
The research was funded by several government agencies, said Professor Zhu Tingshao, the laboratory's director.
"Each personality indicates a certain mental weakness, knowledge of which could be used to help or hurt people, depending on who uses it," said Zhu. "We have been very careful to keep the research within our laboratory. We do not allow any organisation or individual access to these tools."
Zhu said they had recently tested the program on more than 500 Weibo users, selected at random.
The same people agreed to complete written questionnaires and a comparison of results found a match of more than 90 per cent in most cases, Zhu said.
Similar research had been conducted overseas, which instead "sniffed" for personality traits by analysing the content of posts on Twitter. "Sometimes written content is sensitive and difficult to obtain. Our method has an edge because only behavioural data is needed," said Zhu.
The program can also look at other sources of online behaviour, such as how many hours a day a person spent on the internet or how the intensity of activity online varied over a week or month.
"In most circumstances, we can get sound and accurate assessments with data from a few dozen variables," he said.
Zhu said the program was developed with good intentions, but he was worried the technology would be used to target individual citizens. With the Weibo toolkit, for instance, anyone could easily produce a personality profile of any of the platform's more than 46 million active users. If the program got out and caused damage, "the scientists will be blamed and held responsible", Zhu said.
Locking the technology in their lab was not a long-term solution, he said, but the mainland did not have laws or regulations that protected people from having their personalities analysed online.
"To be honest, we don't know what to do with the technology," Zhu said. "Collecting personality traits from openly available data is banned in some countries, but its legitimacy is still uncertain in China."