Latanya Sweeney, a professor of government at Harvard University, is a law-abiding citizen. So she was startled when a colleague showed her what happened when he ran her name through a Google search: an advertisement on the results page headlined “Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?”
That little display triggered a much larger research project in which Sweeney, a computer scientist and specialist in data privacy, concluded that Google searches of names more likely associated with black people often yielded advertisements for a criminal records search in that person’s name.
In a research paper recently submitted for publication, Sweeney ran more than 2,100 names of real people through Google searches. She found that names that sounded black were 25 percent more likely to trigger ads for criminal records than names that sounded white — even if, like Sweeney, the person had no criminal record.
Sweeney did not offer conclusions about exactly how this happens, or why, but said she planned further research to determine the causes.
But the frequency with which the ads are paired to black-sounding names, said Sweeney, has real consequences.
“You could be in competition for an award, a scholarship, a new job,” she said. “You could be in a position of trust, like a professor, a judge. Having ads that show up suggestive of arrest, may actually discount your ability to function.”
For her study, Sweeney compiled lists of traditionally “black” names, such as Travon, Rasheed, Ebony, and Tamika, as well as “white” names such as Brad, Cody, Amy, and Jill.
The ads show up both on searches done on Google’s home page and on other websites that have built-in search functions and allow ads from Google to appear alongside the results. In all cases, Sweeney found the ads were from the same firm: Instant Checkmate LLC, a Las Vegas company that provides online background checks.
Instant Checkmate did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
Google, meanwhile, issued a statement denying its AdWords business discriminates. AdWords is Google’s highly profitable service in which businesses pay to have their ads appear in the results when users search particular keywords or phrases.
“AdWords does not conduct any racial profiling,” said Google, adding the company’s policies prohibit advertisements “that advocate against an organization, person or group of people. It is up to individual advertisers to decide which keywords they want to choose to trigger their ads.”
Sweeney, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, did her undergraduate work at Harvard and was the first black woman to earn a doctorate in computer science from MIT. She founded Harvard’s Data Privacy Lab, which studies ways to share personal information over computer networks without compromising privacy.
For her study, Sweeney received funding from Google.
Sweeney said executives at Instant Checkmate told her they had bought search results from Google on the names of 100 million Americans. When one of these names is searched, Google displays an ad for Instant Checkmate, and gets a small fee if the searcher clicks on its ad. The more clicks an ad receives from searchers, the more likely it will appear on the page for that search term.
Not every search of the same name yields the same result; sometimes the advertisement from Instant Checkmate is neutral, simply offering to do a background check on the person whose name is searched. Other times, the ads from Instant Checkmate were more explicit, offering to provide an arrest record or criminal history.
Sweeney’s results dovetail somewhat with other research on “black” names, most notably a 2004 study that found employers were less likely to respond to resumes sent by people with black-sounding names.
For her research, Sweeney compiled a list of names from the 2004 study, and from a chapter in the book “Freakonomics” on distinctively black names. She then identified 2,184 people with either distinctively white or black names and confirmed the race of about 1,400 of them by looking up their photos in Google’s image database.
She found that first names were reliable predictors of a person’s race. Someone named Brad was almost always white, while someone named DeAndre was nearly always black.
Sweeney ran the names though Internet searches in two places — the main Google website, and the news site Reuters.com, which uses Google to search its story archive. Both sites display ads generated by Google’s advertising service.
Sweeney found that searches on Google’s own website produced Instant Checkmate ads just 16 percent of the time, but 84 percent of the time when searched on Reuters.com. And at the Reuters site, searches of black-sounding names were 25 percent more likely to yield ads with offers to view the person’s arrest or criminal record.
Other websites that use a Google search window and display Google ads yielded similar results. For example, entering “Latanya Sweeney” in the search box on one of the Globe’s websites, Boston.com, generated an ad from Instant Checkmate that reads in part, “Criminal records, phone, address, & more on Latanya Sweeney.”
Meanwhile, plugging “Jill Sweeney” into Boston.com’s search box yielded an Instant Checkmate ad that read: “Jill Sweeney found in database,” but no mention of an arrest or criminal record.
Sweeney said she has no idea why Google searches seem to single out black-sounding names. There could be myriad issues at play, some associated with the software, some with the people searching Google. For example, the more often searchers click on a particular ad, the more frequently it is displayed subsequently.
“Since we don’t know the reason for it,” she said, “it’s hard to say what you need to do.”
But Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineLand.com, an online trade publication that tracks the Internet search and advertising business, said Sweeney’s research has stirred a tempest in a teapot. “It looks like this fairly isolated thing that involves one advertiser.”
He also said that the results could be caused by black Google users clicking on those ads as much as white users.
“It could be that black people themselves could be causing the stuff that causes the negative copy to be selected more,” said Sullivan. “If most of the searches for black names are done by black people . . . is that racially biased?”
On the other hand, Sullivan said Sweeney has uncovered a problem with online searching — the casual display of information that might put someone in a bad light. Rather than focusing on potential instances of racism, he said, search services such as Google might want to put more restrictions on displaying negative information about anyone, black or white.
For instance, Sullivan said Google could require advertisers to remove the words “arrest record” from all their ads.
Sweeney has submitted her study to an academic journal for publication, but is not allowed to identify it. She has posted the study online at the Social Science Research Network, and at Arkiv.org, a repository of research papers maintained by Cornell University.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.