Recently, the ABC News Web site published an article discussing two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who tried to determine what kinds of information members of social networks, such as Facebook, were indirectly revealing. These two students devised an application on Facebook called the “Gaydar.”, which analyzed the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends to predict the person’s sexual orientation.
The findings that these students had were interesting. Most of the time, the information appeared to accurately identify the sexual orientation of male users. However, they were less accurate when determining the sexual orientation of female users.
Regardless of whether or not these applications are ridiculous, this type of information being spread across the Internet is scary. This is a whole new kind of threat to our privacy.
Hal Abelson, the MIT computer science professor who taught the students who created the “Gaydar” application, said, “The whole notion that your information is just about you – that isn’t true anymore … The point is when the information is so interconnected, information about me isn’t just about me.”
Basically, that means that even if people make their profiles private, keep personal information off their sites (about religion, politics, sexual orientation, etc.), and are careful about what they post on their walls, information on a friend’s page can lead to a postulation about that person.
Many college students and beyond have checked their profiles over and over again for information that could exclude them from receiving a job, make their parents mad, or just be too much information for the public Internet. But now do we have to check our friends’ profiles too? Does a friend doing something that you don’t want others thinking you did mean that you have to delete them on Facebook?
This social networking analysis does not stop with sexual orientation, religious preferences and political views. The next step in social networking analysis involves integrating information on social networks to other data streams including medical records, search engine histories, credit card information or even future possible health risks. Besides the information being private in obvious regards, this could lead to identity theft, higher insurance costs and denial of medical benefits and job security.
Who we are friends with in real life does not always determine who we are. Each individual should not be judged just because his or her friends are different from him or her. Just because I have multiple gay friends does not mean I’m gay and having many straight friends also does not mean I’m straight. Just because someone supports the war in Iraq does not necessarily mean that all of his or her friends do as well. This type of social networking analysis leads to generalizations about the population, stereotypes, cliques and harmful discrimination.
Kait Staffieri is a sophomore psychology major from Dallas.