A pair of MIT students claim that they have created an algorithm that outs gay members of Facebook by analyzing the sexual orientations of their networks of friends.
The students first analyzed the networks of people who publicized their sexual orientation on Facebook. Turns out that statistically speaking, gay men have more gay friends than straight guys do. So then, they used an algorithm to run the stats on men who kept mum about their sexual orientation on the site. Their computer program was able to correctly identify 10 men whom the students personally knew to be gay in the real world but who hadn’t shared that fact on Facebook.
(The algorithm didn’t work as well with women or with bisexual Facebookers.)
The students completed the project for a class on ethics and the Internet and hope to publish it in a scientific journal.
Their project is far from the first study showing that a simple computer program can sleuth out details you might prefer to keep private by looking at your social network on the Internet. Earlier this year, computer scientists correctly linked 30 percent of anonymous Twitter and Flickr accounts with a simple algorithm that compares who’s following who on each site. And other researchers have used Internet social networks to correctly identify peoples’ political affiliations or where they live.
It’s a good reminder to take a look at your privacy settings. Because you might inadvertently be sharing things you’d rather keep to yourself. Even if you’re only declaring to the world that someone’s your friend.
[via Boston Globe]