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Group rips Microsoft over Internet user profiling research

Algorithms could help governments finger critics, says Reporters Without Borders

June 3, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp. research on Internet user profiling could lead to tools that help repressive regimes identify anonymous dissidents, the Reporters Without Borders advocacy group warned last Friday.

In a paper presented at the International World Wide Web Conference last month in Calgary, Alberta, four researchers at Microsoft's Beijing-based lab laid out work that predicted the age and gender ( PDF format) of unknown Web users based on the sites they visited. Their new algorithms correctly guessed the gender of a Web surfer 80% of the time, and his or her age 60% of the time.

"Demographic information is usually not easy to obtain," the researchers said. "Internet users are reluctant to expose this kind of personal data to public. The alternative way to predict users' demographic information is then of great interest." The Microsoft researchers said such predictions could be used to better personalize Web applications and fine-tune online advertising.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders objected not only to the research, but also to where it was conducted. "The technologies Microsoft is working on would allow it to gather information about Internet users without their knowledge," the group said in a statement. "These technologies could eventually lead to the creation of programs that could identify 'subversive' citizens. We believe it is unacceptable to carry out this kind of sensitive research in a country such as China where 50 people are currently in prison because of what they posted online."

American companies such as Yahoo Inc., Google, Inc. and Microsoft gather "fantastic" amounts of data about their Web visitors, Reporters Without Borders said, but "this kind of data accumulation obviously poses even more ethical problems in a country such as China which has absolutely no respect for the private lives of Internet users."

Microsoft's researchers said they would expand their work to other demographic attributes, such as occupation, educational degree and geographic location, which has Reporters Without Borders even more worried.

"In China, it is conceivable that this type of technology would be used to spot Internet users who regularly access such 'subversive' content as news and information websites critical of the regime," the group said.

The Chinese government has regularly locked down domestic access to sections of the Internet, and recently proposed a rule that would compel bloggers to register their real names, eliminating anonymity. A government-associated organization backed away from the mandate 10 days ago, however, and instead pitched the idea of bloggers exercising "self-discipline."

That same day, Erik Bratt, a Microsoft marketing communications manager, fired a preemptive salvo about the company's age- and gender-guessing research. Bratt first downplayed the research results, saying: "[The researchers] actually found that they could not, with a high degree of accuracy, predict age from Web browsing activity." He also swore the Redmond, Wash., developer off using the resulting algorithms. "Microsoft currently has no plans to use the capabilities found through this research in our products and services," Bratt said.





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