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MIT Project "Gaydar" Shakes Privacy Assumptions 508

Posted by kdawson
from the it's-who-you-know dept.
theodp writes "At MIT, an experiment that identifies which students are gay is raising new questions about online privacy. Using data from Facebook, two students in an MIT class on ethics and law on the electronic frontier made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person's online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. The project, given the name 'Gaydar' by the students, is part of the fast-moving field of social network analysis, which examines what the connections between people can tell us, from predicting who might be a terrorist to the likelihood a person is happy, fat, liberal, or conservative." MIT professor Hal Abelson, who co-taught the course, is quoted: "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."
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MIT Project "Gaydar" Shakes Privacy Assumpitons

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  • I beg to differ (Score:5, Insightful)

    by laron (102608) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:01PM (#29484179)

    "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."

    I have control over my information. And that is why you wont find be on Facebook.

  • by Angostura (703910) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:03PM (#29484199)

    From the article:

    The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said.

    ...The work has not been published in a scientific journal...

    I once wrote a computer program that predicted coin tosses. I didn't check, but I'm pretty sure that if I had tossed a coin that the predictions would have been accurate.

  • by straponego (521991) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:03PM (#29484203)
    Should be: MIT Project "Gaydar" Shakes Privacy Assumptions of Stupid Twats Who Still Won't Care
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:2, Insightful)

    by laron (102608) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:05PM (#29484213)

    Arg. Find me on FB...

  • by PhantomHarlock (189617) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:06PM (#29484223)

    You mean if people can view your social networks on facebook they can deduce some basic facts about you? Shocking! People really need to think about the compromise that they are making when they make their FB profiles and info visible to anyone but their immediate friends. It's ok if you want to do it, but just realize what you are doing.

    Being on a social network site at all exposes you a lot. I decided I didn't give a crap, but I have everything set to 'friends only' and I don't use apps or quizzes. Reasonable compromise for a non-tin-foil-hatter.

  • by guyminuslife (1349809) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:13PM (#29484275)

    Likewise, if twenty-five of your thirty Facebook friends are gay and of the opposite gender as you, they conclude you're probably single.

  • by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:13PM (#29484277)

    A computer fed with a few hundred megabytes of personal data can now determine in minutes what most of us in the life know as soon as we see the person. I should be impressed, except I'm totally not. Don't worry about this ever becoming popular though -- sooner or later someone will feed the program a list of US senators and then magically the next day all traces of the program, its authors, and the results will be declared illegal and the arrests will begin -- effective last tuesday.

    More seriously, the problem isn't that people may be able to infer a person's sexual orientation -- it's the fact that this society still refuses to label those who use this type of information to slander, attack, and in some cases kill, other people. Our transparent society has brought a lot of social issues right out in the open where everyone can see them. And we can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the injustices perpetuated by one group onto another. This, fundamentally, is what the fight over privacy is about: It's not what we are (or are not) that matters, but rather the correlations between those facts and the social meanings and messages attached to them. The fight for privacy is really founded upon the belief that the average person is insecure, full of prejudice and bile, and is generally a manipulative bastard who'll stab you in the back given half a chance.

    And I can't find any fault in that statement. Most people are, and thus... Privacy will remain an important thing to fight for so long as we have reason to fight amongst ourselves.

  • by Archaemic (1546639) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:14PM (#29484291)

    With a username like "celibate for life", they don't really have to invent anything to tell you're a virgin.

  • by IANAAC (692242) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:16PM (#29484301)

    Also, this could be useful as a dating tool; if you don't know if the object of your affections is gay or not, run them through MIT Gaydar, and then possibly feel more secure about asking them out.

    Or, you know, you could just take the time to get to know someone a bit before asking them out. 'Course, you'd have to log off and go out into the real world to to that.

  • by Tony Hoyle (11698) <tmh@nodomain.org> on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:22PM (#29484339) Homepage

    That's not just a gay issue.. just ask any teenager (and quite a few adults)

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Jurily (900488) <jurily@NETBSDgmail.com minus bsd> on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:27PM (#29484383)

    I have control over my information. And that is why you wont find be on Facebook.

    How about your friends?

  • Party games (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fermion (181285) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:37PM (#29484441) Homepage Journal
    There are things that make wonderful party games. Medicine cards, runes, reading body language, etc. There is really nothing wrong with these games.

    The problem is when we start using these perfectly reasonable tools to begin to make real decisions. You are guilty because the runes said so. Most of us tend to believe that decisions should be made on some direct evidence, not indirect assumption. I mean it is not liek some guys think, that every girl that won't go out with them is a lesbian and every guy that hates football is gay.

    There is the issue of what makes a person gay, straight, or bi. Just like sleeping with large numbers of the opposite sex does not make one straight, and may indicate a deep seated concern, there is nothing other than a self identification that can suggest a real sexual preference. I don't think a professional, or computer program, or parent can within a reasonable certainty state a sexual preference for another person. And this has nothing to do with the controversy. It has to do with weather we live by reason and evidence or by superstition and hearsay. I think the MIT people are simply too infatuated with cult of technology.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sabernet (751826) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:48PM (#29484511) Homepage

    But your friends know you. And they may, in fact, be posting information about you. Everything from tagging pictures to leaving notes. You have no control over this.

  • by noundi (1044080) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:49PM (#29484519)

    My Kingdom for a mod point! Not being able to ask someone out for fear of mutual embarrassment and summary rejection is surely a weighty cross to bear.

    That is solved by socially accepting homosexuals, not by probing them.

  • by Kell Bengal (711123) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:50PM (#29484523)
    I disagree that the US considers people gay on the basis of what they do. There are lots of counter examples of people who aren't the way they act: closet gays, bicurious, abstaining gay christians, lifestyle gays, metrosexuals, gay until graduation.

    Some act gay but aren't, some explore 'alternative' sexualities but never feel that they aren't straight, some clearly self-identify as gay but don't actually have same-sex intercourse. Despite the world's efforts to put us all into convenient pigeon holes, sexuality is a complex spectrum that doesn't lend itself well to assumptions.

  • Confirming sayings (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tarrio (151332) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:19PM (#29484697) Homepage
    There's a Spanish saying, "tell me who you are with and I'll tell you who you are". I guess this is scientific proof.
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:38PM (#29484843)

    Precisely. We're *all* subject to the privacy issues of social networking and other technology, whether we are direct customers or not.

    With Facebook, it's very likely that you will be included in someone else's pictures and descriptions even if you aren't yourself a member.

    With Google Mail, if you send an email to a gmail user, (or your email gets forward to a gmail user) your email will be scanned for advertising triggers and archived indefinitely by Google (even if the recipient "deletes" it), without your consent or knowledge, even if you yourself aren't a gmail user.

    With the internet, your traffic may pass through an AT&T facility like Room 641A [wikipedia.org] and be copied wholesale to the US gov't without your knowledge or consent (and without a warrant) even if you yourself aren't an AT&T customer.

    You can make all the savvy choices to protect your privacy that you want to, but if you communicate electronically with anyone of the vast majority who either isn't informed, doesn't care, doesn't see an issue, or has made a different choice, your privacy is shot.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PPH (736903) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:42PM (#29484881)

    But your friends know you. And they may, in fact, be posting information about you.

    Correction: People who claim to be my friends may be posting information about me. The only ones who are my friends are those that I acknowledge as such.

    The world is full of people who claim to be the friend of some rich, influential or important people. That you or any others actually believe anything they have to say demonstrates your gullibility and susceptibility to scams or cons. Although this has been going on for ages, th Interweb has made this both easier and more difficult to exploit. Easier, because many people are gullible enough to believe someone when they say, "I know so and so" without checking the veracity of their claim. More difficult because the structure of some social networking sites makes it easy to verify the bidirectionality of these links. Blow hards who claim to know everyone, but are unkown, or just not acknowledged, by the other parties are easy to expose.

    I value my privacy. And my true friends know this. So the more information a person posts about me in public, the less likely it is that they are a friend. And the more likely it is that the info. may be incorrect.

  • by perlchild (582235) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:53PM (#29484951)

    Have you considered that the algorithm might just be

    a) "If user is hetero show ads from companies that want to reach hetero males"

    b) "If user is gay show ads from companies that want to reach gay males"

    c) "If unsure show both"

    with your area, at the time, having no businesses that wanted to reach people through facebook?

    I know I've yet to see a titty bar advertise on FB, and you had excluded the dating sites by saying you were in a relationship.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) * on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:23PM (#29485147)

    "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."

    I have control over my information. And that is why you wont find be on Facebook.

    Who cares, only an american would care about anothers sexuality. Bigotry inequality discrimnation and trusting in god, did we mention american greed, well no, that's a whole other story

    Do you actually have the slightest idea what you just said? I understand that America-bashing is fashionable these days, but if not done with a minimum of facts, it only makes the basher look like a fool.

    Ask Alan Turing about how tolerant Europeans can be about sexual orientation. Furthermore you're the one making blanket assumptions about a nation of some 300 million people. Might want to check that bigotry at the door next time you feel the need to foam at the mouth. Truly, it's not a pretty picture.

  • by glwtta (532858) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:25PM (#29485165) Homepage
    Just about every kind of identity in the U.S. seems wrapped around what one does, what one has or his position.

    Right, because we don't have things like gender, race, or age in the US.

    Anyway, sorry to disrupt the "I'm so damn straight!" fest.
  • Re:you are wrong. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Blakey Rat (99501) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:39PM (#29485255)

    You have two concepts confused:

    1) What features women say they find attractive in men
    2) What features women *actually* find attractive in men

    The two are not even remotely close to the same.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mctk (840035) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:54PM (#29485351) Homepage

    I have control over my information.

    No, no you don't. Ever heard of a credit report? We've never had control over our information.

    Anyways, the ability to keep in touch with important people in my life, for me, is worth the risk of whatever doomsday privacy issue others see. So what, some sketchy advertisers get some info on me? Uuuh, I have multiple websites, registered with my name and address. I have no doubt that my grocery shopping is closely tracked based on my credit card number. I'm sure that my contact info has been sold between companies hundreds of times. My phone company knows who I talk to and for how long. My insurance company knows my driving record. My fingerprints are on file in Oregon.

    I happen to like the fact that I am able to call up and old friend and meet him for drinks while driving through town on a road trip, thanks to facebook. That's worth it, in my opinion.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @06:10PM (#29485445)
    "If you disagree with me, you're a mark". Thats one of the smuggest, anti-social posts I've seen on slashdot.
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by hedwards (940851) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @07:08PM (#29485831)
    And people can still google it and it can still ruin your life. And your part of the problem, I do expect that unless there's a warrant or other court order involved that people won't be able to find out really anything about me. People really shouldn't be posting photos and such of other people without getting permission first, it's just common courtesy that if you're exposing somebody to a potentially large audience that you do it only with permission.

    The fact that other assholes don't respect my privacy does not make the people I'm trying to avoid any less dangerous or any less real.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @07:40PM (#29486023)

    <bi male>
    Topless man or woman is pretty much the same thing to me.

    Do straight men get a small sexual kick out of walking round topless? I find it erotic. (Do women?)
    </bi male>

  • Re:you are wrong. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mick88 (198800) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @07:47PM (#29486061) Homepage
    Don't get me wrong - I love slashdot. But I have to disagree that posting on slashdot raises your logic quotient. 50% of the reason why I skim posts is to watch the irrational / illogical comment wars unfold. It's kinda fascintating.
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:5, Insightful)

    by epine (68316) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @07:50PM (#29486071)

    And people can still google it and it can still ruin your life.

    Do you feel beholden to the idiots who make snap judgments of others based on indirect or second hand information? These McCarthyists with their lists of Facebook URLs have the power to ruin your life? How so? Why is it you've delegated this power to others who lack the wits to exercise considered judgment? Or is it instead the case that the photos from your personal life present you doing things that no reasonable person would do?

    There's an element of chicken shit to take the anonymous court of public opinion quite so seriously. It often stems from the desire to substitute dignity with irreproachableness. Part of the deal with dignity is accepting that you can't force others to draw the right conclusions. If you take the opposite approach and try to control what people conclude about you, you'll discover one of two things: a) you're sucking up to the rich and powerful, or b) the people whose opinions you have successfully shaped have no significance. Option (a) works, if that's what you want.

    I'm personally looking forward to the generation where when you look for someone on the web, and find nothing at all, you judge what that person might be hiding more seriously than you judge the ordinary defects of those who fear less to make themselves known.

  • by MoxFulder (159829) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @08:30PM (#29486297) Homepage

    Namely, the project shows that its authors consider "gayness"/homosexuality to be something that many people would like to hide, to the point that they would suffer embarrassment or worse if someone else was able to infer it from other data.

    Why not make "Project White-dar"? I'll bet you could figure out if someone is white (or black, or Hispanic, or Zoroastrian) based on their Facebook friends. Most white people don't go around online pointing out loudly that they're white. You don't see too many Slashdot sigs that say, "Hey, I'm Caucasian." But I'm guessing most white people would also not really care if you figured out that they were white based on their Facebook friends, or where they live, or some other data.

    I think there are lots of kinds of information that people broadcast about themselves--income, education level, relationship status, etc.--which are expressed implicitly in various forms--language usage, clothing style, social networks, etc. Nevertheless people often don't state these things openly.

    Why should being gay be any different in this day and age, at least in countries that no longer have widespread institutionalized discrimination against gays?

    Bottom line: All of the interest in this study seems to derive from the tacit notion that there is or should be something inherently shameful about being gay.

  • by rohan972 (880586) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @09:12PM (#29486457)

    My Kingdom for a mod point! Not being able to ask someone out for fear of mutual embarrassment and summary rejection is surely a weighty cross to bear.

    That is solved by socially accepting homosexuals, not by probing them.

    Do you think that heterosexuals don't hold back from asking people out for fear of mutual embarrassment and summary rejection?

    Maybe it's because you're skinny or have acne, not much money, not socially confident etc, etc. No matter how well gays are accepted everyone still risks rejection when they ask someone out. I'm not sure that "No, I'm not gay" is more hurtful than "No, I don't like you" as a rejection. I think there is no way to make rejection more palatable. You just have to learn to deal with it, part of that being more selective who you ask.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @09:18PM (#29486471)

    You are an idiot. If some people want their privacy then it doesn't mean they are hiding something and you need to respect that. Some of us have enough self-esteem that we don't need to post our entire (overly glamourised) lives online in order to make hundreds of "friends" with people we have never met, will never meet and who really have little in common with us just so we can say "look how popular I am".

    Why don't you go install cameras into every room of your house and stream them over the net? After all, if you have nothing to hide then you won't mind.

  • by Rary (566291) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @10:54PM (#29487033)

    Do you think that heterosexuals don't hold back from asking people out for fear of mutual embarrassment and summary rejection?

    I'm pretty sure that heterosexuals do. However, I'm equally sure that heterosexuals don't hold back from asking people out for fear of getting their ass kicked simply for daring to ask out someone who doesn't match their sexuality.

    Unfortunately, we still live in a world where homosexuals do have that fear.

  • by Reziac (43301) * on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:18PM (#29487235) Homepage Journal
    Why not make "Project White-dar"? I'll bet you could figure out if someone is white (or black, or Hispanic, or Zoroastrian) based on their Facebook friends. Most white people don't go around online pointing out loudly that they're white.

    People tend to point out ways in which they are NOT the default for a given venue. So you can reasonably conclude that those who don't point out their differences probably don't have said differences. Rather like how here on Slashdot, we can reasonably assume posters are geeks unless they state otherwise, because that's the local default.

  • by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000NO@SPAMyahoo.com> on Sunday September 20, 2009 @11:49PM (#29487479)

    A computer fed with a few hundred megabytes of personal data can now determine in minutes what most of us in the life know as soon as we see the person.

    That must be a nifty trick, to be able to tell what someone's sexual orientation is just by looking at them. How do you do that?

    Falcon

  • Re:you are wrong. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Monday September 21, 2009 @04:01AM (#29488565) Journal
    It is totally true. But it has to be real, you can't have fake respect like opening the door for her and then not paying attention to what she wants.
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by L4t3r4lu5 (1216702) on Monday September 21, 2009 @05:31AM (#29488861)
    I'm not sure what you got up to at that frat party, but if it's so objectionable that you would be refused employment based upon the content of the pictures, perhaps:

    - You shouldn't have posted the pictures on the internet
    - You shouldn't have taken pictures,
    - You shouldn't have been involved in whatever the situation was in the first place.

    Seems like completely bad judgement on your part, IMHO.

    FWIW, I've seen the pictures of my employer completely wasted at the Christmas party. I took them, and we had a good laugh afterwards. Parties are where people relax and enjoy themselves, and have nothing at all to do with your work ethic. Any decent employer will know that.
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YourExperiment (1081089) on Monday September 21, 2009 @05:31AM (#29488865)

    As for minors, I don't see the value in mining their data, but it's still wrong.

    There is indeed no reason to market anything to people under 18, and that's why no company has ever done so.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AK Marc (707885) on Monday September 21, 2009 @05:36AM (#29488887)
    As bad as it is in the US,

    Too late. If it's bad, I don't care where it's worse. It's bad in the US. Go to some place like New Zealand. You'll find many straight people saying "partner" in relation to their spouse or unmarried life partner. When the terminology is such where a committed pair of gays and a committed straight couple can talk without having the words they choose reveal something about themselves, then you know you are free. The US still pushes terminology that separates gays. If they want to talk family at work, they either have to lie, or they are revealed in the first sentence. Tolerance isn't trying to pretend it doesn't matter. Tolerance is an apathy of the personal details of others. Masturbate to wildlife videos of seals mating? I don't care. Don't hurt seals, and I'll never bother you. But in the US, someone that thinks oddly is persecuted. For a country that prides itself on the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought that's considered even more important, there's a lot of persecution for thoughtcrimes like liking someone in "that way" that you don't approve of.
  • Re:you are wrong. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by shaitand (626655) on Monday September 21, 2009 @09:22AM (#29490237) Journal

    Yup, that is what they all say. It isn't what they want though. Guys like that live exclusively in the friend zone.

  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Monday September 21, 2009 @09:28AM (#29490291) Homepage Journal

    How about your friends?

    People may be effectively "outing" themselves just by the virtual company they keep.

    I'm skeptical. I have a few gay friends, and no doubt have friends I don't realize are gay (to tell the truth I'd rather not know, it's none of my business). I'm not on facebook, but if I was it seems possible that this program could peg me as gay, just because some people I know are.

    The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men

    I'm skeptical. No way of checking so they relied on "their own knowledge"? This isn't how science works.

For God's sake, stop researching for a while and begin to think!

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