The other day The Boston Globe reported on a new project coming out of MIT that uses social networking data to predict whether a male Facebook user is gay or not. The experiment has been given the not terribly original name Project Gaydar.
Part of a new field of study called social network analysis, Project Gaydar examines a a male Facebook user's public connections or "Friends" on Facebook in order to determine the likelihood that he is gay or not. Other analyses have attempted to predict a person's political affiliation or drawn conclusions based on favorited books and movies.
Gays and lesbians have had particular concerns about privacy rights due to the history of criminalization and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the U.S. Even gays who are largely "out" may prefer to keep their sexual preference private in select circumstances, such as applying for a job or while searching for housing.
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks do offer privacy settings that allow users some control over what other people can see. So there are some means available to protect information one wants kept private, including choosing not to post about certain subjects at all.
Several studies have shown that not posting about certain subjects--such as politics, sex, drinking, and your employer--is exactly what human resources departments in the U.S. expect from potential employees. According to a recent survey of human resources professionals, nearly half used social networking sites to help them screen candidates.
If you're gay or lesbian and looking for a job, you probably already know that you don't have much legal protection against discrimination in hiring or in the workplace. And if you're not gay or lesbian, you're pretty much shit out of luck, too. Any number of behaviors or lifestyle factors could place you on the "do not hire" list, including being overweight or smoking.
According to Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, potential employers can use investigative consumer reports to find out about a candidate's "mode of living." However, under the federal Fair Credit and Reporting Act, employers must notify job seekers of such background checks and some states place additional restrictions on such reports.
Now, with social networking background checks, no notice need be given. Human resources managers can log on to Facebook, Twitter, or any number of other sites and draw whatever conclusions they like about prospective employees (including wrong ones) based on friends, favorites, posts or casual comments.
In other words, your future livelihood may depend on whether you've declared yourself a fan of The Simpsons or once retweeted Pee-wee Herman. And yet, the online reaction to intrusive practices like Facebook background checks is mostly defensive advice like "don't post publicly," or "clean up your digital profile."
Freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech are rights provided for in the Constitution to all Americans. As part of those freedoms, we must demand the right to Friend and to favorite, to gather and to chat, to poll and to post without the threat of corporate surveillance restricting our ability to make a living or to participate fully in our digital public sphere.