Researchers scraped students’ data from Facebook, merged it with university records, used these merged data for research, and then shared them with other researchers.
Beginning in 2006, each year, a team of professors and research assistants scraped the Facebook profiles of members of the Class of 2009 at a “diverse private college in the Northeastern U.S.” The researchers then merged these data from Facebook, which included information about friendships and cultural tastes, with data from the college, which included information about academic majors and where the students lived on campus. These merged data were a valuable resource, and they were used to create new knowledge about topics such as how social networks form (Wimmer and Lewis 2010) and how social networks and behavior co-evolve (Lewis, Gonzalez, and Kaufman 2012). In addition to using these data for their own work, the Tastes, Ties, and Time researchers made them available to other researchers, after taking some steps to protect the students’ privacy (Lewis et al. 2008).
Unfortunately, just days after the data were made available, other researchers deduced that the school in question was Harvard College (Zimmer 2010). The Tastes, Ties, and Time researchers were accused of a “failure to adhere to ethical research standards” (Zimmer 2010) in part because the students had not provided informed consent (all procedures were reviewed and approved by Harvard’s IRB and Facebook). In addition to criticism from academics, newspaper articles appeared with headlines such as “Harvard Researchers Accused of Breaching Students’ Privacy” (Parry 2011). Ultimately, the dataset was removed from the Internet, and it can no longer be used by other researchers.