A computer scientist at Harvard writes that any searches involving black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads suggestive of a criminal record than white-sounding names.
For her paper, Latanya Sweeney collected about 2000 names suggestive of race. She used the names in Google and Reuters searches and reported that black-identifying names were more likely to generate ads that including the word “arrest.” (Here’s a sample of the search results)
Coincidence? She claims there’s a 0.1 per cent chance that the ads were generated by chance.
First names, assigned at birth to more black or white babies, are found predictive of race (88% black, 96% white), and those assigned primarily to black babies, such as DeShawn, Darnell and Jermaine, generated ads suggestive of an arrest in 81 to 86 percent of name searches on one website and 92 to 95 percent on the other, while those assigned at birth primarily to whites, such as Geoffrey, Jill and Emma, generated more neutral copy: the word “arrest” appeared in 23 to 29 percent of name searches on one site and 0 to 60 percent on the other. On the more ad trafficked website, a black-identifying name was 25% more likely to get an ad suggestive of an arrest record. A few names did not follow these patterns. All ads return results for actual individuals and ads appear regardless of whether the name has an arrest record in the company’s database.
A Google spokesperson, however, tells MIT Technology Review the company’s Ad Words program does not engage in racial profiling.