The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on privacy questions surrounding research on social networks:
In 2006, Harvard sociologists struck a mother lode of social-science data, offering a new way to answer big questions about how race and cultural tastes affect relationships.
The source: some 1,700 Facebook profiles, downloaded from an entire class of students at an “anonymous” university, that could reveal how friendships and interests evolve over time. It was the kind of collection that hundreds of scholars would find interesting. And in 2008, the Harvard team began to realize that potential by publicly releasing part of its archive.
But today the data-sharing venture has collapsed. The Facebook archive is more like plutonium than gold—its contents yanked offline, its future release uncertain, its creators scolded by some scholars for downloading the profiles without students’ knowledge and for failing to protect their privacy. Those students have been identified as Harvard College’s Class of 2009. […]
The Harvard sociologists argue that the data pulled from students’ Facebook profiles could lead to great scientific benefits, and that substantial efforts have been made to protect the students. […]
The Facebook project began to unravel in 2008, when a privacy scholar at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Michael Zimmer, showed that the “anonymous” data of [Jason Kaufman, the project’s principal investigator and a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society,] and his colleagues could be cracked to identify the source as Harvard undergraduates. […]
[Another privacy question is raised because] Mr. Kaufman apparently used Harvard students as research assistants to download the data. That’s important, because they had access to profiles that students might have set to be visible to Harvard’s Facebook network but not to the whole world, Mr. Zimmer argues in a 2010 paper about the case published in Ethics and Information Technology. The assistants’ potentially privileged access “should have triggered an ethical concern over whether each student truly intended to have their profile data publicly visible and accessible for downloading,” Mr. Zimmer says in an e-mail.