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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.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by laron (102608)

      Arg. Find me on FB...

    • by Bill, Shooter of Bul (629286) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:39PM (#29484865) Journal
      And yet you registered for a slashdot account.
    • 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.

    • 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 Slashdo

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Reziac (43301) *
        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 g

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Namely, the project shows that its authors consider "gayness"/homosexuality to be something that many people would like to hide.

        I don't see that implication myself. The summary mentions other factors that can be predicted by this kind of research: whether a person is "happy, fat, liberal, or conservative". Are these also things which the researchers believe people wish to hide? Although being outed as a conservative might be considered embarassing by the average Slashdot poster.

  • Solution (Score:4, Funny)

    by kk49 (829669) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:02PM (#29484181)

    Friend Everyone...

  • by MSTCrow5429 (642744) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:03PM (#29484197)
    I am really curious if it thinks I'm gay (does it consider bisexuality?). 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.
  • 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
  • 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.

  • I just read that you can tell with about 87% accuracy who a person is, based on their date of birth, gender, and zip code. How's this much different - it draws on public information in a meaningful way.

  • So twenty-five of your thirty Facebook friends are gay and of the same gender as you. And they conclude you're probably gay! Wow!
    • 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.

    • So twenty-five of your thirty Facebook friends are gay and of the same gender as you. And they conclude you're probably gay! Wow!

      Twenty-five of your thirty Facebook friends who say to be gay, who are said to be gay or which the system assumes to be gay?

      In the last case, we will have lots of people being indicated as homosexuals based on distant associations. It might even end up saying everyone is gay. All the system does is speculations.

      The great majority of my friends drink beer often and likes soccer. I do not.

  • by celibate for life (1639541) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:09PM (#29484241)
    I just hope they don't invent a virgin-radar.
  • by mikael (484) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:12PM (#29484267)

    There are a couple of fields of personal data in facebook which state your marital status, and whether you are looking for a man or woman. It might just be possible from analyzing these details, which way you swing.

  • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by falconwolf (725481)

      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

  • Unless we can see the entire study, accuracy is suspect.

  • The whole friend thing is kind of an obvious privacy hole, isn't it? I have only used Facebook a little, because I only joined at the request of my brother, and most of my "friends" on Facebook are professional and semi-professional connections. Also, because I only use it to keep up with my brother, I haven't bothered digging into its capabilities... but I certainly would have expected that there was an option to hide your friends list. Even if I was interested in using it more broadly the lack of such a f

  • by Chysn (898420) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:20PM (#29484331)
    ...at Sharper Image.
  • by jafo (11982) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:30PM (#29484405) Homepage
    They can tell me if the person I'm talking to online is wearing pants.

    Sean
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:31PM (#29484409)

    When I first used FB, I kept most of the personal information blank. I only told it my age, that I was male, and that I was in a relationship and not looking for one.

    FB at once started serving up gay-oriented ads. I never clicked on any of them or in any other way expressed interest, yet over time the percentage of these seemed to increase.

    I finally gave up, and filled in the "interested in" section. The moment that field went from blank to "women", the gay ads vanished.

    It isn't clear whether FB actually thought that I was gay, or just sought to pressure me into answering more questions about myself. If the former, its algorithms are entirely too simplistic. If the latter, it's evil.

    • 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.

  • Old news (Score:5, Interesting)

    by paradigm82 (959074) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:32PM (#29484413)
    This is old news (and really pretty obvious) and have been known in the gay community since FB started :) I have ~250 friends and being gay, quite a few of my friends are gay too. Whenever I click on some new person I can usually tell whether that person is gay (at least if it's a guy) or not, simply based on the number of gay friends we have in common (i.e. I don't even need to look at that person's friends individually to see whom of them are gay). So if we don't have any friends in common at all, it's usually a sign that the person isn't gay. Now, being from a small country (Denmark, 5.5 mio. citizens) implies a smaller gay community, but I would still think this observation would be valid in other countries at least within cities. The reason this works is of course that within all communities there are certain people who have _a lot_ of friends on Facebook and sort of serve as "magnets", in the sense that someone in the same community is likely to sooner or later run into that person and be added as a friend on Facebook - or at least run into one out of the "magnet" persons you are friends with.
  • 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.

  • by Greyfox (87712) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:56PM (#29484559) Homepage Journal
    Every so often we get one of those delicious stories in the news about some right-wing christian conservative being outed by an ex-gay lover or getting arrested after trying to pick up men in a public rest room. The funny thing is these are usually the most anti-gay people imaginable and it turns out they've either been playing or been wanting to play dingle-dangle-dingle with the personal equipment of their own gender for quite a while now. Can I just point this thing at Fox News, the Radio Talk Show Tinfoil Hats or the homophobic side of Congress and get a reading on how many of them are secretly smoking pole on the side?
  • 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.
  • by webbiedave (1631473) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:24PM (#29484753)
    I have a program that can determine if someone on facebook may be gay, liberal, conservative, plus what their top 5 movies are, their top 5 albums, if they're bored, and even sometimes what they're eating! I call it: a browser.
  • by Dachannien (617929) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:27PM (#29485171)

    Amy: This is Bolt Rolands. Bolt is a hyper-sled racer with ten wins on the pro circuit.
    Bolt: Hello, beautiful!
    Bender: (whispers) I think she means ten wins on the gay circuit.
    Bolt: (chuckling) I wish! Those cats can really fly.

  • Prof. Hal Abelson (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cpghost (719344) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @08:27PM (#29486275) Homepage
    Is this the same Hal Abelson [wikipedia.org] of SICP [mit.edu] fame?
  • by omarin (322924) on Monday September 21, 2009 @08:50AM (#29489895)

    For gay Slashdot readers like me, this article is a good reminder why (situation allowing!) it's best to be out of the closet and upfront with everyone. I came out to my folks when I was 16, and have always been upfront about my gayness, and I've reaped the benefits of this:

    1. no having to lie/watch everything I say
    2. no worries about been "found out" if I use some gay-oriented website (such as gaydar.co.uk)
    3. no blackmail is possible (I remember that it was an excuse used by government agencies in order to deny hiring gays, as they could allegedly be blackmailed about their sexuality).
    4. being an out gay man, straight people who get to know me learn that gay is good/they tend to get rid of their preconceptions about gays.
    5. I can use Facebook/Flickr and not give a damn about who can see who my friends/groups are.

    Basically, as an out gay man I can read the article, ponder on my Facebook account, and can calmly think "So f*ck*ng what??"

    This is because being out of the closet defangs homophobes in many ways..

    Of course I understand why some gay/lesbian/bi folk would be in the closet (live in a small town, close-minded friends/family/employers, work for the US military etc.), but if you're in the closet and reading this, realize that in the long run it's so much nicer to "thine own self be true", and I've been so much happier since I came out all those years ago.

    I'm here, I'm queer, I'm a geek my dear! ;-)

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