by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
Two MIT students, Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree, teamed up to create 'Gaydar,' a program that could be used to 'out' closeted Gay and Lesbian users of the online social network Facebook. The two concluded that determining the sexuality of someone might be as simple as browsing through their lists of online friends.
The unpublished 2007 MIT experiment is another way of saying birds of a feather flock together, or the 'homophily principle' - the tendency for similar people to group together. Jernigan and Mistree downloaded data from Facebook, choosing their sample from MIT students who joined the network, which included the classes of 2007-2011 and graduate students. The two were interested in three specific categories people fill in on their social profile: gender, 'interested in,' which usually denotes sexual preference, and their 'friends' links.
Using the information to train their computer program, they analyzed the friend links of 1,544 men who identified as straight, 21 who said they were Bisexual, and 33 who stated they were Gay. According to their findings, Gay men had proportionally more Gay friends than straight men, giving the computer program a way to identify a person's sexuality based on their friends.
Applying what they'd learned about Gay users, they did the same analysis on 947 men who did not report their sexuality. Although the researchers admit they have no way to confirm the analysis with scientific exactitude, they used their private knowledge of 10 people in the network who were Gay but did not declare it on their Facebook page. According to Jernigan and Mistree, they found all 10 people were predicted Gay by the program. The two men said the analysis worked in identifying Gay men - the same technique, however, was not as successful with Bisexual men or women, or Lesbians.
'It's just one example of how information could be inadvertently shared,' said Jernigan. 'It does highlight risks out there.'
The researchers said they treated their data anonymously, never using names except to validate their predictions during data analysis. The only copy of the data is on an encrypted DVD they gave to a professor, according to the Boston Globe.
'When they first did it, it was absolutely striking - we said, 'Oh my god - you can actually put some computation behind that,' said Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at MIT who co-taught the course. 'That pulls the rug out from a whole policy and technology perspective that the point is to give you control over your information - because you don't have control over your information.'
Facebook has not responded to the study, citing that it would not be possible because Jernigan and Mistree's analysis is not available to the public.
'In general, it's not too surprising that someone might make inferences about someone else without knowing that person based on who the person's friends are. This isn't specific to Facebook and is entirely possible in the real world, as well,' said Facebook spokesman Simon Axten. 'For example, if I know that someone has certain political views because that person makes them known in some way (say, by putting a bumper sticker on his car), and then I see a person walking out of a movie with friends I don't know, I might assume those friends also have the same political view.'
Privacy has become a growing and evolving concern for social networks like Facebook. They are dealing with the fact that they provide a resource that brings people together, but may also jeopardize privacy in ways no one could foresee.
'You can do damage to your reputation with social networking data, and other people can do damage to you. I do think that there's been a very fast learning curve - people are quickly learning the dos and don'ts of internet behavior,' said Jason Kaufman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 'Potentially, everything you ever do on the internet will live forever. I like to think we'll learn to give each other a little more slack for our indiscretions and idiosyncrasies.'
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