Boston Globe: At MIT, an experiment identifies which students are gay, raising new questions about online privacy
The Boston Globe reports on a fascinating study about social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and privacy:
It started as a simple term project for an MIT class on ethics and law on the electronic frontier.
Two students partnered up to take on the latest Internet fad: the online social networks that were exploding into the mainstream […] 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. […]
The project, given the name “Gaydar” by the students, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, is part of the fast-moving field of social network analysis, which examines what the connections between people can tell us. The applications run the gamut, from predicting who might be a terrorist to the likelihood a person is happy or fat. The idea of making assumptions about people by looking at their relationships is not new, but the sudden availability of information online means the field’s powerful tools can now be applied to just about anyone.
You should read the whole story, which describes several instances of social network analysis besides the MIT study.