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.
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