Facebook Friend List Can Indicate Sexuality: Study

MIT students identified gay men using sexuality of online friends

By Nick McMaster,  Newser Staff

Posted Sep 21, 2009 2:52 PM CDT

(Newser) – Students at MIT designed a program that allowed them to identify gay men using their Facebook friends' sexual preferences, and the results are sparking debate about online privacy, the Boston Globe reports. The "Gaydar" project looked at the “interested in” field and tabulated the number of gay friends for males who did not disclose their sexuality. Though ethical considerations prevented full verification, the program was correct for every individual whose sexual orientation the students knew independently.

"This isn’t specific to Facebook and is entirely possible in the real world as well," a Facebook rep points out. Though the student project was just a pilot study, it exposes an interesting dimension of the debate over online privacy. Social networking programs provide users with controls on the personal information—but how can users ensure the privacy of information they don’t realize they are sharing?

Same-sex couple Amber Weiss and Sharon Papo hold hands as they get married at San Francisco City Hall June 17, 2008 in San Francisco, California.   (Getty Images)
Same-sex couple John Lewis (L) and Stuart Gaffney hold hands as they arrive at the California Supreme Court to await a decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage May 15, 2008, in California.   (Getty Images)
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When they first did it, it was absolutely striking - we said, ‘Oh my God - you can actually put some computation behind that.’
- Hal Abelson, computer-science professor, MIT

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