Harvard Facebook study raises privacy issues

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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