When you are filling out an online dating profile, there is always that little pinch of fear that someone you don’t want (like a colleague or your mom) is going to see it. To top that little pinch, there is the large concern that the personal information you are entering is going to be released to the public. Whether you are gay, straight, or hunting down a certain sexual fetish, the info revealed on your dating profile is private and intimate – you are trying to fall in love, after all!
Unfortunately for users of OkCupid, that privacy has been breached, with Danish researchers leaking a data set of almost 70,000 user profiles last week. In doing so,researchers are not only facing major backlash by those signed up to OkCupid and the dating company themselves, but the scientific community has stepped in to voice its disapproval.
The company used software to automatically scrape the online profiles, taking personal info that ranged from usernames, genders and ages to sexual orientation and what personal relationship users were seeking. The researchers didn’t ask for consent, and hasn’t made users anonymous in their studies.
Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, the leader of the study, revealed that “the data is already public.” This position was repeated in an accompanying draft paper that was posted to forums of Open Differential Psychology, an online journal also run byu Kirkegaard: “Some may object to the ethics of gathering and releasing this data. However, all the data found in the dataset are or were already publicly available, so releasing this dataset merely presents it in a more useful form.”
The warning is there, guys! This data release reminds us that any information we reveal online, whether it be through social media, online dating or LinkedIn, is accessible to those who choose to find it.
Put most powerfully by Wired: “We must address the conceptual muddles present in big data research. We must reframe the inherent ethical dilemmas in these projects. We must expand educational and outreach efforts. And we must continue to develop policy guidance focused on the unique challenges of big data studies. That is the only way can ensure innovative research—like the kind Kirkegaard hopes to pursue—can take place while protecting the rights of people an the ethical integrity of research broadly.”
Watch this space.