Two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have learned that it is possible to predict which men in social networks are gay, even if they aren't out, based on who their friends are.
It's the theory behind traffic analysis, or the process of intercepting and examining messages to deduce information from patterns in communication, even without the content of the messages.
According to an article in the Boston Globe, the project, code-named Gaydar, analyzed the Facebook friend links of 1,544 men who said they were straight, 21 who said they were bisexual, and 33 who said they were gay. "Gay men had proportionally more gay friends than straight men, giving the computer program a way to infer a person’s sexuality based on their friends," the article said.
The students then asked the program to determine the orientation of men who did not declare it on Facebook, and ten men -- whom the students knew to be gay -- were also predicted to be gay by the program. (The program was not so successful at picking out gay women, or bisexual men and women.)
It's not that people need to be worried about being outed by a couple of MIT students. But a number of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have warned users how much personal information they are revealing in social networking sites without realizing it. What MIT students can do, other people -- including potential bosses -- could also figure out how to do, potentially leading to the notion that users might hesitate at publicly friending others based on what inferences -- correct or not -- might be drawn.