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Not to fan the flames on the social justice warriors.”I suppose I am one of those “social justice warriors” he's talking about. Rather, we should highlight this episode as one among the growing list of big data research projects that rely on some notion of “public” social media data, yet ultimately fail to stand up to ethical scrutiny.The Harvard “Tastes, Ties, and Time” dataset is no longer publicly accessible. And it appears Kirkegaard, at least for the time being, has removed the Ok Cupid data from his open repository.There are serious ethical issues that big data scientists must be willing to address head on—and head on early enough in the research to avoid unintentionally hurting people caught up in the data dragnet.In my critique of the Harvard Facebook study from 2010, I warned: The…research project might very well be ushering in “a new way of doing social science,” but it is our responsibility as scholars to ensure our research methods and processes remain rooted in long-standing ethical practices.The “publicness” of social media activity is also used to explain why we should not be overly concerned that the Library of Congress intends to archive and make available all public Twitter activity.In each of these cases, researchers hoped to advance our understanding of a phenomenon by making publicly available large datasets of user information they considered already in the public domain.Concerns over consent, privacy and anonymity do not disappear simply because subjects participate in online social networks; rather, they become even more important. The Ok Cupid data release reminds us that the ethical, research, and regulatory communities must work together to find consensus and minimize harm.
When we first studied online dating habits in 2005, most Americans had little exposure to online dating or to the people who used it, and they tended to view it as a subpar way of meeting people.
a group of Danish researchers publicly released a dataset of nearly 70,000 users of the online dating site Ok Cupid, including usernames, age, gender, location, what kind of relationship (or sex) they’re interested in, personality traits, and answers to thousands of profiling questions used by the site.
When asked whether the researchers attempted to anonymize the dataset, Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. Kirkegaard, who was lead on the work, replied bluntly: “No.
The “already public” excuse was used in 2008, when Harvard researchers released the first wave of their “Tastes, Ties and Time” dataset comprising four years’ worth of complete Facebook profile data harvested from the accounts of cohort of 1,700 college students.
And it appeared again in 2010, when Pete Warden, a former Apple engineer, exploited a flaw in Facebook’s architecture to amass a database of names, fan pages, and lists of friends for 215 million public Facebook accounts, and announced plans to make his database of over 100 GB of user data publicly available for further academic research.
Michael Zimmer, Ph D, is a privacy and Internet ethics scholar.