Harvard’s Privacy Meltdown

Harvard’s Privacy Meltdown – Technology – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This article discusses the large 2006 “Tastes, Ties, and Time” project conducted by Harvard researchers that used 1,700 Facebook profiles of university students.  This article raises interesting questions and concerns about the use of publicly-available social media data for research.  I think the assumption often is that if something is on the Internet, it’s in the public domain, and thus up for grabs, so to speak, and not subject to the approval of ethics boards.  As this case suggests, this may not be the case; furthermore, ethics review boards may not be equipped to understand the nuances of Web-based research:” “esearchers must navigate the shifting privacy standards of social networks and their users. And the committees set up to protect research subjects—institutional review boards, or IRB’s—lack experience with Web-based research.”

In the study, “the researchers downloaded each student’s gender, home state, major, political views, network of friends, and romantic tastes. To determine race and ethnicity, they examined photographs and club affiliations. They recorded who appeared in students’ photo albums. And they culled cultural tastes like books, music, and movies.”  A suggested rule of thumb is that “If an online community requires a password to enter, then researchers must seek IRB approval to study its members. But some scholars go further, Mr. Halavais says, arguing that researchers should seek approval to study open publishing platforms like blogs and Twitter.” I think that this statement is oversweeping at best.  I can understand concerns if you use data that involves personal information, but what if you want to do content analyses of blogs, for example (part of a research project I plan to start); does this mean that you need to get ethics approval? Does this mean that you need ethics approval if you wish to study tagging behaviour in a library catalogue for example, where people must log in to tag?  While I am a strong advocate for the protection of privacy, how far can these safeguards go, and at what price to scholarship?