Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ethics News: Harvard Facebook Study Shows Privacy Issues Related to Internet Research

An article from the Chronicle of Higher Education published on July 10th describes a recent study completed by Harvard sociologists that studied how race and cultural tastes affect relationships. They based their study on 1,700 Facebook profiles from a group of students at an anonymous university. Problems emerged in 2008 when Michael Zimmer of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee showed that even with the protections the Harvard researcher utilized to protect the data, the data could be identified from coming from the Harvard class of 2009. Researchers taking part in the study used Harvard students as research assistants to download the data, thereby allowing them to access profiles of students that might have set their profiles to be visible only to Harvard's Facebook network. This raises the question of if the students included in the data set truly intended to have their profile data publicly visible and accessible for downloading.

The article shows how many questions are raised by the use of data on social networking sites for research purposes, and the changing relationship between researchers and their subjects in these kinds of contexts.

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