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Inside money, markets, and Big Tech

This article was published on September 21, 2009

Facebook ‘Gaydar’ points at a frightening future

Facebook ‘Gaydar’ points at a frightening future
Martin Bryant
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Martin Bryant

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Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-qualit Martin Bryant is founder of Big Revolution, where he helps tech companies refine their proposition and positioning, and develops high-quality, compelling content for them. He previously served in several roles at TNW, including Editor-in-Chief. He left the company in April 2016 for pastures new.

Rainbow Pride by brainchildvn http://www.flickr.com/photos/brainchildvn/2660109255/Two students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have created a piece of software that can reportedly guess if someone is gay based solely on their Facebook profile.

The project, first reported by The Boston Globe, analyses a person’s Facebook friends and uses that data to decide if they’re gay or not. When tested on ten men, known to be gay but not publishing the information on their Facebook profile, the software correctly guessed the sexual preferences of all ten.

The software has only had small-scale testing at present and according to The Telegraph is apparently not so hot at identifying lesbians and bisexual people. Still, if the technique can be honed into something more reliable we may be looking at a rather frightening future.

There is a wide variety of details we might want to keep secret about ourselves for perfectly legitimate reasons. Imagine if a computer program could be run to identify more than just our sexual preferences but our political beliefs and where we live. As The Boston Globe article notes, research of this type has already been conduct with some success.

As we make our way around the web we generate a lot of data about ourselves deliberately; photos, videos, profiles and the like. When that’s combined with the data we don’t even think about much of the time, such as who we accept as friends, we’re creating a lot of data that could be used against us in the future.

Results from these types of studies may never be 100% accurate but if they reach a decent level of reliability they could be used by governments to weed out potential troublemakers, militants to identify potential targets and much more. Think about the number of people falsely identified as terrorists post-9/11 or the people incorrectly hounded as paedophiles.

These types of analytical programs could lead us down some worrying roads in the future if people place too much faith in them.