When, five years ago, sociologists at Harvard announced they had downloads the Facebook profiles of 1,700 ‘anonymous’ students, it was hailed as a huge breakthrough in the study of how race and culture affect relationships.
But now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, it has been established that the ‘anonymous’ students were in fact Harvard College’s class of 2009 – and now the university has been accused of a huge breach of the students’ privacy.
When the Harvard team first announced its project – titled ‘Tastes, Ties and Time’ – it said the profiles would be tracked over time to see how relationships and interests evolved over time.
But the Facebook project began to fall apart in 2008 after the Harvard research team began to release, publicly, part of the data.
That helped Michael Zimmer, an assistant profressor at the University of Wisconsin, to ‘crack” the ‘anonymous’ data and show it belonged to the Harvard undergraduates.
Now the archive has been pulled offline and the Harvard research team faces criticism from students that their Facebook profiles were downloaded without permission, and that their privacy had not been protected.
Jason Kaufman, the project’s principal investigator and research felow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, hit back, accusing critics of behaving like ‘academic paparazzi’, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The data was edited to reduce the potential for identification of individual students, and that no student was claiming to have suffered actual harm because of the project, he added.
But Michael Zimmer told the CHE: “The steps they tried to take to engage in innovative research, to me, fell short.”
He said the Facebook project excited many because it offered vast amounts of data, collected over time – a major challenge to sociologists.
Jason Kaufman himself described the Facebook data as “a complete social universe.”
But Mr Zimmer said the data breach possibly happened because the Harvard research team used resarach assistants who had access to Harvard’s Facebook network – whose student may not have wanted their information shared with anyone outside the university.
Mr Kaufman also admitted, the CHE reported, that the 1,700 Harvard students were not told about the data gathering. “We all agreed it was not necessary, either legally or ethically,” he is quoted as saying.
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