Slate has a story up about how doing network analysis of our online personas can reveal a lot about us that we never intended to reveal. In a story titled, “The Leaky Nature of Online Privacy,” author Kevin Gold reports:
[P]attern recognition software has made it possible to learn about someone not based on what he has shared about himself but by examining what his friends have made public. For example, researchers have trained a program to identify the sexual orientation of gay males with roughly 80 percent accuracy using the self-reported orientation of their Facebook friends. Alan Mislove of Northeastern University has shown that it takes only a 20 percent participation rate among college students in filling out profile information to deduce facts—such as major, year, and dorm—about the nonresponders who simply friended others. The software uses statistics gleaned from large data sets about how often friends tend to have characteristics in common when they are a part of a community and how often they might simply share characteristics by chance; then it combines several such probabilities into a statistically motivated guess as to whether a person belongs to a particular community. So it’s not actually possible to participate in social networks without revealing anything about yourself; you reveal your interests by association.
In other words, even if we think we are keeping elements of our lives private, it is possible to leverage our network connections to learn information about us that we never intended to reveal. In fact, according to the story, “ZIP code, sex, and birth date are enough to determine your exact identity 87 percent of the time.” This raises questions about not only privacy but of power. Who has the capacity to do this kind of analysis? What might they do with it? Should using such information require some kind of informed consent?