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Ethical Considerations when Employing Fake Identities in Online Social Networks for Research


Online social networks (OSNs) have rapidly become a prominent and widely used service, offering a wealth of personal and sensitive information with significant security and privacy implications. Hence, OSNs are also an important—and popular—subject for research. To perform research based on real-life evidence, however, researchers may need to access OSN data, such as texts and files uploaded by users and connections among users. This raises significant ethical problems. Currently, there are no clear ethical guidelines, and researchers may end up (unintentionally) performing ethically questionable research, sometimes even when more ethical research alternatives exist. For example, several studies have employed “fake identities” to collect data from OSNs, but fake identities may be used for attacks and are considered a security issue. Is it legitimate to use fake identities for studying OSNs or for collecting OSN data for research? We present a taxonomy of the ethical challenges facing researchers of OSNs and compare different approaches. We demonstrate how ethical considerations have been taken into account in previous studies that used fake identities. In addition, several possible approaches are offered to reduce or avoid ethical misconducts. We hope this work will stimulate the development and use of ethical practices and methods in the research of online social networks.

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Correspondence to Michael Fire.

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This work was carried out while the H. Shulman was in the Department of Computer Science at Bar Ilan University.

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Elovici, Y., Fire, M., Herzberg, A. et al. Ethical Considerations when Employing Fake Identities in Online Social Networks for Research. Sci Eng Ethics 20, 1027–1043 (2014).

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