Small Business Owners Were Unknowingly Used as Lab Rats Costing Them Thousands of Dollars. And Princeton University Approved It.

A team of computer science researchers at Princeton University engaged in a study that actively deceived hundreds of businesses, non-profits, and private citizens – costing some of them thousands in legal fees. How did they let this happen? That’s an excellent question.

A Quick History on Pushing the Boundaries of Ethics for the Sake of Research

There are plenty of stories bouncing around – well-spread even before the Internet – about rather unprincipled academic studies. Some of the best-known ones are the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment. 

If you don’t remember psychology class, Milgram tested students’ willingness to obey authority by punishing a fellow student. Both the original Ghostbusters film and Afterlife had scenes spoofing Milgram’s work with a twist.

First, let me point out that, for whatever reason, the Princeton University Institutional Review Board determined that the privacy study did not constitute human subjects research. They could not be more wrong.

While there are many automated aspects of websites – increasingly so, as AI bots get better at offering ‘human appearing interactions’ – behind each website is at least one human being impacted by the study’s approach. And as I’ll explain in a moment, the specific method the team used to gather their data, in fact, caused many people to be affected at every site polled – the tactics used turned it into a human subject research study.