Two students at MIT were engaged in a term project about ethics and the law for social networking sites. During their investigation they stumbled on a situation in which they could actually determine the sexual preference of those who use Facebook by their online friends. The students used software to determine not only who your online friends were, but also gender and statistical analysis for their conclusions.
The study also concluded the following facts:
The pair weren’t interested in the embarrassing photos or overripe profiles that attract so much consternation from parents and potential employers. Instead, they wondered whether the basic currency of interactions on a social network – the simple act of “friending” someone online – might reveal something a person might rather keep hidden.
Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by the virtual company they keep.
The work has not been published in a scientific journal, but it provides a provocative warning note about privacy. Discussions of privacy often focus on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public. Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are: if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too. The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.
“Even if you don’t affirmatively post revealing information, simply publishing your friends’ list may reveal sensitive information about you, or it may lead people to make assumptions about you that are incorrect,” said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization in San Francisco. “Certainly if most or many of your friends are of a particular religious or political or sexual category, others may conclude you are part of the same category – even if you haven’t said so yourself.”
Is this guilt by association? I believe it is. I am an devote Democrat but many of my very good friends and relatives are Republicans. We have an unwritten rule when it comes to discussions that we avoid two subjects, religion and politics. We respect each others opinions and do so in a civil manner.
But if these people are my Facebook friends, could one conclude that I am secretly a Republican?
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