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LinkedIn experiment changed job prospects for millions — and it raises red flags: privacy experts

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A five-year study of nearly 20 million users by LinkedIn found that some participants who were unaware that they had participated in a social experiment were likely to have had their employment opportunities cut, thus raising ethical warnings. has been issued, suggests data privacy and human resources experts.

Online networking and social media platforms have randomly varied the number of strong and weak acquaintances that users have. close contact.

study of the results, Published in Science Magazine Researchers from LinkedIn, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, and Harvard University confirmed this idea on Sept. 15. Users who indicated contacts with only 10 of her mutual friends were twice as likely to find a new job as those who indicated people with 20 of her mutual friends .

But it also means that LinkedIn users who are flooded with “close contacts” (those who have 20 or more friends in common), the algorithm has fewer opportunities to connect through networking sites.

Given the possible consequences, it’s unlikely that many people willfully agree to have their networks and livelihoods manipulated in the manner in which this study did, said the Osgood Hall of York University Focus on Internet, Society and Data Policy. Jonathon Penney, a law professor who conducted research on law school.

“They couldn’t have agreed.”

Penny said of the 20 million subjects, “a huge number of people who could be negatively impacted in terms of their job prospects simply because of this study.” At the research stage in 2019, more than 5 million of her people from North America were said to have attended.

“Most users, if you asked them, would say they couldn’t have consented to this type of research. I have real concerns about ethics.

Jonathon Penney, a law professor specializing in internet, society and data policy at York University's Osgood Hall Law School, stands in front of a stone brick wall.
Jonathon Penney is a Law Professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, whose research focuses on Internet, Society and Data Policy. He said the LinkedIn investigation raises ethical concerns. (Submitted by Jonathon Penney)

While academics are held to strict standards of ethics and disclosure, it’s not uncommon for marketing and media companies to use algorithms to gauge the success of new products and services. This is a process known as A/B testing, where users visit different online tools and experiences and analyze how they engage with them.

A LinkedIn spokesperson said in an email to CBC News that the company hopes to use the data to tailor its services.

“Through these observations, we were able to determine that people were more likely to get a job from an acquaintance than from a close friend,” LinkedIn said in an email. I can’t wait to see how it can help you change your mindset.”

Comprehensive privacy policy

During the experiment, the company did not notify users about the experiment, but its privacy policy states that LinkedIn can use members’ profiles to conduct research.

But online privacy experts who told CBC News said the standard privacy policies that people click on when registering for online platforms are too liberal in how companies use people’s information. suggests.

LinkedIn told the CBC in an email that it conducted a survey to get better information to connect job seekers and recruiters. (LinkedIn)

Indeed, the purpose-only principle of Canada’s Personal Data Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) stipulates that user data can only be used for the purposes declared at the time of collection, but companies often push the envelope, says Canada Research. said Ignacio Cofone of He is Professor of Artificial Intelligence Law and Data He Governance at McGill University.

“The problem is … companies rarely know what they are going to use the data for later,” Cofone said in an interview.

As such, “the way the law has evolved in business has enabled a very wide range of purposes [of user profile use].”

The LinkedIn survey “is a perfect example of how emptiness of consent can be in online interactions with businesses,” Cofone continued. For example, he said it takes him 250 hours to read the average number of privacy policies he agrees to in a year. Also, those policies are often changed unilaterally.

Penney said he was aware of LinkedIn’s research objectives. Big data and real observation of human behavior. And this study was subject to the Institutional Review Board for Research Involving Human Subjects. Facebook’s Secret Psychological Experiment of 2014sparked an investigation by the UK Data Protection Authority.

Nevertheless, Penney said that accepting a long and deliberately vague privacy policy at registration is required in typical human subject research, especially research that may have real-world consequences. He said that it is not the same as “informed consent” that

According to Penny, university-level research often has significant challenges to overcome in order to conduct research on human subjects. “You must be very [precise] About research and its purpose. In the event of any kind of deception, additional safeguards often need to be put in place. ”

He also shared concerns that LinkedIn may be using their research to test new profit avenues.

“It’s easy to imagine that something like the design affordances that LinkedIn is testing could be used for intention biases that deliver the best work. [and] Employment opportunities will be aimed at wealthy users,” Penny said.

prefer wealthier users

The platform has already undergone a notable transformation in the past five years by offering benefits to paying users, said Neil Wiseman, senior consultant for Pivotal recruiting and HR services in Mississauga. He uses his LinkedIn in his work.

LinkedIn premium subscriptions start at $30/month and allow users to communicate directly with anyone on the platform. On the other hand, people with free accounts can only contact people they connect with.

“When people reach out [via LinkedIn Premium], I try to give them something of value. They take their time and pay to contact me.

rely on algorithms

Recruitment firm Refer HR, which has served 42 corporate clients since opening in Vancouver in 2019, also looks for potential candidates on LinkedIn, said general manager Kobe Tang. I’m here. LinkedIn’s algorithmic recommendations play an important role in his search and eventual hiring, he said.

Networking sites have also been a go-to place for Canadian tech workers after Shopify, Wealthsimple, Hootsuite and Unbounce cut their workforces in 2022, said Rob Gido, marketing manager at Refer HR. increase.

“add the so-called weak [connections] It definitely improves your chances of finding new opportunities and new jobs,” says Gido.

Professional portrait photography of Ignacio Cofone, Canadian Research Chair for Artificial Intelligence Law and Data Governance at McGill University.
Ignacio Cofone, Canadian Research Chair for Artificial Intelligence Law and Data Governance at McGill University, said privacy legislation should strengthen regulations for companies to obtain consent for how they use people’s data. said. (Ignacio Cofone)

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) said in an email that it had not received any complaints regarding the investigation, but that it could prompt an investigation if it did.

But Cofone and Penny said Canada’s lenient privacy law on consent is one sign that the law is less stringent than laws around the world. The European Union’s general data privacy policy has been updated twice since Canadian law was enacted 22 years ago, but there have been no major changes to the country’s personal protection laws.

Penney said he wants legislative changes that give the federal privacy commissioner more powers for investigation and enforcement and limit how companies’ privacy policies can be used in relation to personal data.

The law should be updated to reflect basic user rights and instead hold companies who trample them accountable, Cofone said. For example, if a company’s use of a user’s profile harms their employment, “they shouldn’t be exempt from liability just because they have the illusion of consent,” he said. Stated.

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“If Canadians are unhappy about being guinea pigs in platform research like this, they should vote for the party that is proposing stronger data protection and privacy laws,” Penney said. .

“Politicians should pay attention to this issue … Platform practices of this kind can perpetuate social and economic inequalities.”

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