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MIT Project "Gaydar" Shakes Privacy Assumptions 508

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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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • by erroneus ( 253617 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @03:42PM (#29484477) Homepage

    The whole topic of gay and not gay has always been interesting to me because the line of thought is alien to me. I consider myself hyper-straight in the sense that I have been sexually attracted to women since before the age of 4... I always knew I liked looking at women... I liked the way their pants fit :) just didn't actually know why until I was 8 or so. But the notion of seeing men sexually has always been fascinating to me because I stretch my mind and still cannot see it. What do women see in men? I don't know. What do men see in men? I don't know. But as a man of the U.S. I have always believed that being gay was an identity based on what you do. A recent NPR show was discussing being gay in the middle east. There they did not so much identify gay as what you do but as who you are. That's a tough thing to wrap one's mind around... identity not based on what one does. Just about every kind of identity in the U.S. seems wrapped around what one does, what one has or his position.

    So given this new mind-twister, the MIT Gaydar makes assumptions based on what? I'd be interested to know. Surely it can't be based on associations alone. If all my friends were black, would that indicate that I am also black? My tendency to burn in the sunlight would tend to disagree with that. I'd be interested to know how MIT defines gay to better understand how it makes determinations.

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

    by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @04:13PM (#29484651)

    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.

    That's true to a point. But on some level that's not 'your information' that's others information about you. You couldn't stop your friends from outing you as gay or communist or vegetarian in the 60s and you can't today. Facebook isn't really a factor.

    However, in terms of data mining and automated profiling etc its worse if you have a facebook account than if you don't. If someone tags a non-FB member its just a name attached to a photo. It doesn't really go anywhere. Its true that someone could see it or read a note mentioning you and connect it to you, or do sophisticated data mining to link all those references together and assemble a profile... but if you tag someone who is a fb member (the way they want you to) it creates a link back to that account, making it utterly TRIVIAL to connect it back to you.

    I'm not on facebook. So while there may be some pictures on it with my name tagged to them, its not really any worse than the web in general. My name/photo is together in a few places online, but they aren't all linked together back to a single 'account' somewhere. If there are tagged photos of me on fb its the same, they are their but all disconnected. If you have a facebook account they'd all link back to that.

    My 'privacy' isn't absolute. I don't expect it to be impossible for people find stuff about me online. But I do object strongly to stuff like facebook where a single company is handed tons of data self-documented by its own users... its idiotic that anyone would participate.

  • by BikeHelmet ( 1437881 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:19PM (#29485121) Journal

    But the notion of seeing men sexually has always been fascinating to me because I stretch my mind and still cannot see it.

    It was a couple years ago that I had a similar realization. I remember I was watching a TV show and a guy took his shirt off. Big pec muscles, like all shirtless actors, and I didn't think a thing about it. But a nearby woman in the show seemed to be distracted by it. The scene took a minute or two to go by, so I took note.

    Later that year in the summer I noted lots of people running around without shirts on. Most were older people with huge beer guts, mowing the lawn and stuff. Some were scrawny teens, and others muscular teens. Didn't feel a thing for any of them, but I can't help but wonder what a woman feels - in particular, women of different age groups. I can't imagine anyone being attracted to the beer gut guys, but the teens didn't look bad.

    Does looking at a chest (muscles or not) really push thoughts from a woman's head? I know I'd be very distracted if I came around a corner and all these topless women were standing there. Is it the same in reverse, or is it just on TV?

  • A couple friends of mine once wrote software to predict market commodities price changes. They had a huge dataset, the last 10 years worth of every commodity price. They tweaked it, and tweaked it, and tweaked it, and in the end it made a consistent profit over their entire dataset. Then they both invested $2,500 each, and it steadily lost every cent of it over less than a year.

    It's easy to come up with a model that matches your data without even realizing it, this sounds like the exact same thing.

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

    by Alrescha ( 50745 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @05:46PM (#29485299)

    "Do you actually have the slightest idea what you just said? I understand that America-bashing is fashionable these days..."

    It would help if we didn't make it so easy. Like it or not, America is the gold-standard for 'sex is bad' (and 'skin = sex', therefore 'skin = bad'). Of course we inherited a goodly part of the from our English cousins, which brings us to:

    "Ask Alan Turing about how tolerant Europeans can be about sexual orientation."

    Alan lived and died in England, where his sexuality was illegal. I'm not sure if England considers themselves 'European' yet, but certainly most countries (not all) in continental Europe were more tolerant about sexual preference 50 years ago than most Americans today.


  • Re:you are wrong. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PRMan ( 959735 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @07:08PM (#29485829)

    You also post on Slashdot, which would suggest you are more logical than 99% of women.

    My wife is pretty logical. She understands that many things women do are ridiculous and illogical. The problem is that even understanding that, she still does them sometimes.

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

    by cpghost ( 719344 ) on Sunday September 20, 2009 @08:27PM (#29486275) Homepage
    Is this the same Hal Abelson [] of SICP [] fame?
  • Re:I beg to differ (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 21, 2009 @04:33AM (#29488661)
    I wear a necklace of super bright infrared LEDs to prevent clear pictures from being taken of me with digital cameras.
  • by YourExperiment ( 1081089 ) on Monday September 21, 2009 @05:43AM (#29488923)

    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.

"This is lemma 1.1. We start a new chapter so the numbers all go back to one." -- Prof. Seager, C&O 351