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Project "Gaydar" Shows Which Students Are Gay

Discussion in 'BlackHat Lounge' started by The Scarlet Pimp, Sep 27, 2009.

  1. The Scarlet Pimp

    The Scarlet Pimp Jr. VIP Jr. VIP Premium Member

    Apr 2, 2008
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    Chair moistener.
    Project "Gaydar" At MIT, an experiment identifies which students are gay


    It started as a simple term project for an MIT class on ethics and law on
    the electronic frontier.

    Two students partnered up to take on the latest Internet fad: the online
    social networks that were exploding into the mainstream. With people
    signing up in droves to reconnect with classmates and old crushes from
    high school, and even becoming online “friends” with their family members,
    the two wondered what the online masses were unknowingly telling the world
    about themselves. The pair weren’t interested in the embarrassing photos
    or overripe profiles that attract so much consternation from parents and
    potential employers. Instead, they wondered whether the basic currency of
    interactions on a social network - the simple act of “friending” someone
    online - might reveal something a person might rather keep hidden.

    Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking
    discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could
    predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program
    that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using
    statistical analysis, made a prediction. 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. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by
    the virtual company they keep.

    “When they first did it, it was absolutely striking - we said, ‘Oh my God
    - you can actually put some computation behind that,’ ” said Hal Abelson,
    a computer science professor at MIT who co-taught the course. “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.”

    The work has not been published in a scientific journal, but it provides a
    provocative warning note about privacy. Discussions of privacy often focus
    on how to best keep things secret, whether it is making sure online
    financial transactions are secure from intruders, or telling people to
    think twice before opening their lives too widely on blogs or online
    profiles. But this work shows that people may reveal information about
    themselves in another way, and without knowing they are making it public.
    Who we are can be revealed by, and even defined by, who our friends are:
    if all your friends are over 45, you’re probably not a teenager; if they
    all belong to a particular religion, it’s a decent bet that you do, too.
    The ability to connect with other people who have something in common is
    part of the power of social networks, but also a possible pitfall. If our
    friends reveal who we are, that challenges a conception of privacy built
    on the notion that there are things we tell, and things we don’t.

    “Even if you don’t affirmatively post revealing information, simply
    publishing your friends’ list may reveal sensitive information about you,
    or it may lead people to make assumptions about you that are incorrect,”
    said Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier
    Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization in San Francisco.
    “Certainly if most or many of your friends are of a particular religious
    or political or sexual category, others may conclude you are part of the
    same category - even if you haven’t said so yourself.”

    The project, given the name “Gaydar” by the students, Carter Jernigan and
    Behram Mistree, is part of the fast-moving field of social network
    analysis, which examines what the connections between people can tell us.
    The applications run the gamut, from predicting who might be a terrorist
    to the likelihood a person is happy or fat. The idea of making assumptions
    about people by looking at their relationships is not new, but the sudden
    availability of information online means the field’s powerful tools can
    now be applied to just about anyone.

    For example, Murat Kantarcioglu, an assistant professor of computer
    science at the University of Texas at Dallas, found he could make decent
    predictions about a person’s political affiliation. He and a student - who
    later went to work for Facebook - took 167,000 profiles and 3 million
    links between people from the Dallas-Fort Worth network. They used three
    methods to predict a person’s political views. One prediction model used
    only the details in their profiles. Another used only friendship links.
    And the third combined the two sets of data.

    The researchers found that certain traits, such as knowing what groups
    people belonged to or their favorite music, were quite predictive of
    political affiliation. But they also found that they did better than a
    random guess when only using friendship connections. The best results came
    from combining the two approaches.

    Other work, by researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park,
    analyzed four social networks: Facebook, the photo-sharing website Flickr,
    an online network for dog owners called Dogster, and BibSonomy, in which
    people tag bookmarks and publications. Those researchers blinded
    themselves to the profiles of half the people in each network, and
    launched a variety of “attacks” on the networks, to see what private
    information they could glean by simply looking at things like groups
    people belonged to, and their friendship links.

    On each network, at least one attack worked. Researchers could predict
    where Flickr users lived; Facebook users’ gender, a dog’s breed, and
    whether someone was likely to be a spammer on BibSonomy. The authors found
    that membership in a group gave away a significant amount of information,
    but also found that predictions using friend links weren’t as strong as
    they expected. “Using friends in classifying people has to be treated with
    care,” computer scientists Lise Getoor and Elena Zheleva wrote.

    The idea behind the MIT work, done in 2007, is as old as the adage that
    birds of a feather flock together. For years, sociologists have known of
    the “homophily principle” - the tendency for similar people to group
    together. People of one race tend to have spouses, confidants, and friends
    of the same race, for example. Jernigan and Mistree downloaded data from
    the Facebook network, choosing as their sample people who had joined the
    MIT network and were in the classes 2007-2011 or graduate students. They
    were interested in three things people frequently fill in on their social
    network profile: their gender, a category called “interested in” that they
    took to denote sexuality, and their friend links.

    Using that information, they “trained” their computer program, analyzing
    the friend links of 1,544 men who said they were straight, 21 who said
    they were bisexual, and 33 who said they were gay. Gay men had
    proportionally more gay friends than straight men, giving the computer
    program a way to infer a person’s sexuality based on their friends.

    Then they did the same analysis on 947 men who did not report their
    sexuality. Although the researchers had no way to confirm the analysis
    with scientific rigor, they used their private knowledge of 10 people in
    the network who were gay but did not declare it on their Facebook page as
    a simple check. They found all 10 people were predicted to be gay by the
    program. The analysis seemed to work in identifying gay men, but the same
    technique was not as successful with bisexual men or women, or lesbians.

    “It’s just one example of how information could be inadvertently shared,”
    said Jernigan. “It does highlight risks out there.”

    The researchers treated their data anonymously, never using names except
    to validate their predictions during data analysis. The only copy of the
    data is on an encrypted DVD they gave to a professor, and they said they
    got the approval of an ethical review board at MIT. The students, who have
    since graduated, discussed the paper with the Globe, but did not provide a
    copy of it because they are hoping to have it published in a journal.

    Facebook spokesman Simon Axten could not respond to Jernigan and Mistree’s
    analysis, since it is not public, but pointed out that it is something
    that happens every day.

    “In general, it’s not too surprising that someone might make inferences
    about someone else without knowing that person based on who the person’s
    friends are. This isn’t specific to Facebook and is entirely possible in
    the real world as well,” Axten wrote in an e-mail. “For example, if I know
    that someone has certain political views because that person makes them
    known in some way (say, by putting a bumper sticker on his car), and then
    I see the person walking out of a movie with friends I don’t know, I might
    assume those friends also have those political views.”

    Privacy has become a growing and evolving concern as social networks learn
    how to deal with the fact that they provide a resource that brings people
    together, but also may endanger privacy in ways they did not anticipate.
    Social networks like Facebook already give people power over that
    information, with privacy features that allow people to hide their
    profiles, and even make their list of friends invisible to outsiders, as
    well as from select friends.

    Because the features and services offered on social networks are new, they
    also evolve in response to user demand that may not always be anticipated
    by the company. In 2007, for example, Facebook introduced Beacon, a
    feature that broadcasted friends’ activities - such as buying movie
    tickets on a specific website - like targeted advertisements. That drew an
    angry response from users concerned about privacy, and prompted an
    apologetic blog posting from Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg, along
    with modifications that meant people could opt out.

    Computer scientists are identifying the ways in which anyone from a
    potential employer to an advertiser might be able to make informed guesses
    about a person. But there are limits to online privacy, and ultimately,
    say some experts, people will simply have to weigh the costs and benefits
    of living online.

    “You can do damage to your reputation with social networking data, and
    other people can do damage to you. I do think that there’s been a very
    fast learning curve - people are quickly learning the dos and don’ts of
    Internet behavior,” said Jason Kaufman, a research fellow at the Berkman
    Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University who is studying a
    set of Facebook data. “Potentially everything you ever do on the Internet
    will live forever. I like to think we’ll all learn to give each other a
    little more slack for our indiscretions and idiosyncrasies.”
  2. moremoney

    moremoney Junior Member

    Jun 30, 2009
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