Harvard Facebook study raises privacy issues

posted at 4:35 pm on July 11, 2011 by Tina Korbe

In 2006, Harvard researcher Jason Kaufman began to download Facebook profiles of students at an “anonymous” university to study how friendships and interests evolve overtime. He enlisted the help of Harvard research assistants to download the information — and eventually amassed “a complete social universe” of 1,700 profiles, replete with each student’s gender, home state, major, political views, network of friends, romantic preferences and cultural tastes in books, music and movies.

The catch: None of the students whose profiles were so tapped knew they were the subject of extensive social science research, and some might have thought they had effectively configured their profile to be visible only to Facebook friends. Plus, various details in the profiles made it easy to determine that the “anonymous” university was, in fact, Harvard itself. Now, some are accusing Kaufman of a breach of privacy and explaining just why such a privacy breach is problematic. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The Harvard case reflects how the Internet is changing the relationship between researchers and their subjects, sometimes creating what Elizabeth A. Buchanan, director of the Center for Applied Ethics, at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, calls a “strange distance” between the two. Researchers may grab content posted online without interacting with the people who wrote it or considering them “human subjects.” But they may be aggregating data that can be traced to individuals, says Ms. Buchanan.

The fundamental question is how best to protect subjects, she says, “and sometimes in Internet research … those issues get muddled.” …

One issue, Mr. Zimmer says, is that someone might be able to figure out individual students’ identities. People with unique characteristics could be discovered on the basis of what the Harvard group published about them. (For example, the original code book lists just three students from Utah.) Their information could be absorbed by online aggregators, like Pipl. A prospective employer might Google a student and use the resulting information to discriminate against him or her, Mr. Zimmer says.

“These bits and pieces of our personal identities could potentially have reputational harm,” he says.

Facebook and Twitter have lately attempted to protect user privacy more completely. The Twitter terms of service, for example, specify that collecting tweets and making them openly available is prohibited (except for, presumably, in the case of the Library of Congress’ Twitter collection project).

These issues perplex me. Presumably, anyone who posts to Facebook or Twitter understands just how “social” these social media platforms are — and individual users absolutely have to take personal responsibility for what they post. But does it follow that anyone who creates a profile on these platforms should consider themselves to also have voluntarily signed up to be the subject of research or a source for a news story or quote? (I’m really asking.) It’s one thing to quote the Twitter stream of a public figure (Weinergate, anyone?) and quite another to thrust a quiet user into the limelight — right? And how can researchers and online journalists best combat the dehumanizing “distance” such sites — so simultaneously “personal” and “virtual” — create? Is it possible to be truly human in a virtual world? Or does such an increasingly virtual world mean relationships will be more among the brands we create for ourselves online than between actual persons?


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And just how many people lie on their social media pages?

Don’t they want to be a free human lab rat?

ajacksonian on July 11, 2011 at 4:38 PM

Anything is open game on a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter. As long as the professor was not hacking accounts I see no privacy issues here.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Anything is open game on a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter. As long as the professor was not hacking accounts I see no privacy issues here.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Speaking of Twitter and hacking, notice how quickly the media totally ignored the story about Fox News’ Twitter feed being hacked last week by the Democrats? The story has vanished almost as completely as the ATF story.

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:45 PM

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:45 PM

Has anyone been caught in connection with that? If not, I don’t see what there is to report on at this point.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:48 PM

subject of extensive social science research

Captain Renault Award® of the Day

MassVictim on July 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

and some might have thought they had effectively configured their profile to be visible only to Facebook friends.

So were they incompetent in configuring the privacy settings on their Facebook accounts, were they hacked, or did Facebook give the researchers access to private accounts? If it’s anything other than the first option, then somebody is in hot water.

This is why I refuse to use Facebook.

iurockhead on July 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

normal clinical research requires participants to sign consent for their information such as gender, race, date of birth to be used for analysis

cmsinaz on July 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:45 PM

Has anyone been caught in connection with that? If not, I don’t see what there is to report on at this point.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:48 PM

They’re still investigating.

Of course, they’re “still investigating” the News of the World hacking too, but since the guy who owns Faux News owns that entity, that story demands 24/7 coverage.

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

If it’s in public view, it’s fair game. Don’t wanna have your business broadcast to the world? Don’t put it on Facebook or Tweet about it.

Pretty simple, really.

RedNewEnglander on July 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

iurockhead on July 11, 2011 at 4:49 PM

I think the vagueness of the author means the first option. But that doesn’t sound very nefarious if openly made clear now does it?

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:53 PM

Real-world rewards far outweigh the virtual risks. Just look at how Egypt’s facebook revolution has empowered Islamists.

Christien on July 11, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

That is true as far as it goes. However, News of the World has been cuaght with their hands in the cooky jar. Because of that it is a story while the FOX hackings are really only a curiousity at this point.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Here’s an article on what Facebook wants to do with personal information:

http://www.missourieducationwatchdog.com/2011/04/data-is-four-letter-word-if-you-value.html

It’s a huge data mining opportunity. Facebook users are giving away personal information for free that ultimately make others wealthy.

I don’t believe it is possible to be human in a virtual world. In education, students are tested as “subsets”. Individual student scores aren’t important. Funding for schools are based on subsets and not how individual students are progressing.

manateespirit on July 11, 2011 at 5:01 PM

So… Somebody is tracking my proficiency at playing Galaxy Legion?

I’m so ashamed.

I’m also feeling some pressure to upgrade my hull plating.

trigon on July 11, 2011 at 5:04 PM

A prospective employer might Google a student and use the resulting information to discriminate against him or her, Mr. Zimmer says.

Unless the are discriminating on national origin, race, sex, etc. what is the problem? The whole point of going to Harvard is to get on the favorable side of the whole discrimination process.

pedestrian on July 11, 2011 at 5:13 PM

Behavior can and has been identified using social networking, including the original social netwroking… actually going and doing things.

“Mortgage Leads” had a close rate of about 1:4, apart from general leads at 1:10 (I know, its not the leads Mr Baldwin)based on the mortgaged amount, purchase date and property/home value.

Peter Lynch (Fidelity)used to peruse malls to see what stores had the most traffic and how many store bags in general people walked around with.

No laws or rights were broken, nor were any TOS’s…

Odie1941 on July 11, 2011 at 5:18 PM

How did they “download” the info if the users had their privacy settings set to only friends?

angryed on July 11, 2011 at 5:18 PM

How did they “download” the info if the users had their privacy settings set to only friends?

angryed on July 11, 2011 at 5:18 PM

some might have thought they had effectively configured their profile to be visible only to Facebook friends.

Even Zuckerburg had his privacy settings wrong for a while. He changed them when pictures started circulating.

pedestrian on July 11, 2011 at 5:26 PM

It perplexes me, too. People who have social networking privacy “issues” shouldn’t network.

There can be no expectation of privacy on the Internet. Use it accordingly.

SukieTawdry on July 11, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Many years ago in a far away prison cell a man is being tortured and questioned by his captors: “No! I’ll will never tell! You can’t make me!”
“If you do not give us the information we want voluntarily, we have ways! It is only a matter of time. We will find out all of your contacts! We will know every friend, every associate, your interests, the books you like, your political views, even where you’ve gone on vacation! We will find it all! It’s just a matter of time you Swine!”

Fast forward to the present and another man is being tortured in a far away prison cell: “No, I’ll never tell! You can’t make me!”
“Uh, chill out. We already know everything about you. We just logged onto your Facebook account! You made our job so much easier”

JellyToast on July 11, 2011 at 5:32 PM

The catch: None of the students whose profiles were so tapped knew they were the subject of extensive social science research, and some might have thought they had effectively configured their profile to be visible only to Facebook friends.

I took a look at the abstract for the published paper of Mr Zimmer in his objection.

It appears (no, I will not pay $35 for it…) the issue is students used to conduct the research may have been “friended” under the auspicous of a friend, and therefore hindered ones privacy because in turn they used it for a university-based research. The research students claimed they kept all personal data omitted, which seems to be a heated contention as to if it was.

Odie1941 on July 11, 2011 at 5:33 PM

What? I use facebook. My profile is set to private. I don’t download or use their ‘apps’. ….and frankly, if they looked at my likes or what not…I don’t care. Maybe I don’t get very ‘personal’ on fb, but I don’t even get the problem. Who cares? So, I click something like…I like horses…and then I get ads popping up for equestrian related things in my area…. Who cares? I’m not sure why I should care.

bridgetown on July 11, 2011 at 5:40 PM

What? I use facebook. My profile is set to private. I don’t download or use their ‘apps’. ….and frankly, if they looked at my likes or what not…I don’t care. Maybe I don’t get very ‘personal’ on fb, but I don’t even get the problem. Who cares? So, I click something like…I like horses…and then I get ads popping up for equestrian related things in my area…. Who cares? I’m not sure why I should care.

bridgetown on July 11, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Great point – remarketing on the web is huge… though some believe it also is a “creepy privacy issue” – of course they forget its a public domain.

Odie1941 on July 11, 2011 at 5:43 PM

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

That is true as far as it goes. However, News of the World has been cuaght with their hands in the cooky jar. Because of that it is a story while the FOX hackings are really only a curiousity at this point.

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Nonsense. If this had been O’bama’s Twitter page that had been hacked by Republicans and the hack was still under investigation, it would be wall to wall.

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 5:45 PM

I actually love this stuff. I’m so glad there are hackers and crazies out there to report it.
Perhaps this will make people Think about how they live their lives. Maybe people will learn to have integrity…is that something that can be learned?? …one can dream..
Hackers shine light on cockroaches and I kinda like it.

bridgetown on July 11, 2011 at 5:49 PM

Del Dolemonte on July 11, 2011 at 5:45 PM

We are going to just have to agree to disagree. If there is no story then no matter how biased the media they aren’t going to get very far with it. We have a minor crime with no suspects. How much news time can anyone develop with something like that?

NotCoach on July 11, 2011 at 5:49 PM

I hope they consider this: what can someone write on their wall or post that is appropriate for all of their friends and family to read? So, vulgar things you might say to a friend are sure to be censored if the aunts and uncles are friends. Certain political views that are shared with family may not be so openly shared with friends.

Queen0fCups on July 11, 2011 at 6:00 PM

Screw the college kids. I’ve got companies data mining my info from 20-30 year old gov. records. Now, I’m stuck with my home address all over the internet which in my line of work makes me uncomfortable.

Blake on July 11, 2011 at 6:03 PM

Perhaps this will make people Think about how they live their lives. Maybe people will learn to have integrity…is that something that can be learned?? …one can dream..

bridgetown on July 11, 2011 at 5:49 PM

Interesting point. This basically puts society back into the days when most people lived in small cities and towns. You can get away with a lot in the anonymity of a large city, much to this country’s detriment.

pedestrian on July 11, 2011 at 6:25 PM

Facebook users are giving away personal information for free that ultimately make others wealthy.

manateespirit on July 11, 2011 at 5:01 PM

This.

Paul-Cincy on July 11, 2011 at 6:26 PM

As long as he didnt hack the info he’s clear. He’s not responsible for other people ignorance. You dont want other people knowing your business dont put it out there.

Facebook users are giving away personal information for free that ultimately make others wealthy.

manateespirit on July 11, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Thats why most companies/products have a facebook page just “friend” them and they have your likes, dislikes ect.

Greed on July 12, 2011 at 12:06 PM