Researchers scraped student data from Facebook, merged it with university records, used this merged data for research, and then shared it with other researchers.
Beginning in 2006, each year a team of professors and research assistants scraped the Facebook profiles of all members of the Class of 2009 at a “diverse private college in the Northeastern U.S.” This longitudinal data from Facebook on friendships and cultural tastes was merged with data the college had about the students’ residential dorms and academic majors. This merged data represented a valuable resource for researchers, and it was 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 the data for their own work, the Taste, Ties, and Time research team made the data available to other researchers, after taking some steps to protect the students’ privacy and in line with the wishes of the National Science Foundation (which funded the study) (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 Taste, 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 now it cannot be used by other researchers.