Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 313–325 | Cite as

“But the data is already public”: on the ethics of research in Facebook

  • Michael ZimmerEmail author


In 2008, a group of researchers publicly released profile data collected from the Facebook accounts of an entire cohort of college students from a US university. While good-faith attempts were made to hide the identity of the institution and protect the privacy of the data subjects, the source of the data was quickly identified, placing the privacy of the students at risk. Using this incident as a case study, this paper articulates a set of ethical concerns that must be addressed before embarking on future research in social networking sites, including the nature of consent, properly identifying and respecting expectations of privacy on social network sites, strategies for data anonymization prior to public release, and the relative expertise of institutional review boards when confronted with research projects based on data gleaned from social media.


Research ethics Social networks Facebook Privacy Anonymity 



The author thanks the participants at the International Conference of Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry in Corfu, Greece, as well as the Internet Research 10: Internet Critical conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for their helpful comments and feedback. Additional thanks to Elizabeth Buchanan, Charles Ess, Alex Halavais, Anthony Hoffmann, Jon Pincus, Adam Shostack, and Fred Stutzman for their valuable insights and conversations, both online and off. The author also thanks the anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions and criticisms. This article would not have been possible without the research assistance of Wyatt Ditzler and Renea Drews. Finally, I would like to thank Jason Kaufman and Colin McKay at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, for their valued and continued feedback regarding this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Information StudiesUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA

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