Playlist privacy issues? It takes just three songs to ID someone, researchers say

TEL AVIV, Israel — The collection of personal data is a hot topic these days. Now, even your music playlist may lead to privacy concerns. A new study finds companies like Apple and Spotify can infer a great deal about users by their song selections. Researchers at Tel-Aviv University report all they need is three songs to identify the person who made a particular playlist.

A total of 150 undergrad students took part in this project, separated into four groups of 35 people. Study authors then asked participants to identify other subjects based solely on three songs from their favorite playlist.

Predictably, the students’ musical tastes varied greatly. Many enjoyed old and new Israeli tunes (Sasha Argov to Kaveret, Zohar Argov, Omer Adam, and Hanan Ben Ari). Other listened to classic rock and pop (The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Beyonce, Ariana Grande) or Israeli and international hip hop (Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Hadag Nahash, and Tuna).

Choice analysis was possible thanks to a complex mathematical model put together by the research team. Ultimately, study authors say the results were surprising.

Privacy violations starting in our playlists?

Group members successfully identified their teammates using just musical choices 80 to 100 percent of the time. Notably, none of these students knew each other well prior to the study.

Music can become a form of characterization, and even an identifier. It provides commercial companies like Google and Spotify with additional and more in-depth information about us as users of these platforms. In the digital world we live in today, these findings have far-reaching implications on privacy violations, especially since information about people can be inferred from a completely unexpected source, which is therefore lacking in protection against such violations,” researchers explain in a media release.

“Visiting YouTube is perceived by the ordinary person as an innocuous act, but this study shows that it can reveal a lot about that person. On the other hand, this knowledge can be used as a bridge between people and perhaps in the future lead to the creation of new diagnostic methods and fascinating intervention programs that will make use of people’s favorite music.”

The study appears in the journal Telematics and Informatics.

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