The Upshot

Latest Facebook privacy outrage: ad data outing gay users

Brett Michael Dykes
The Upshot

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Last month, after Rutgers classmates outed Tyler Clementi online as a gay man, he ended his life. He posted on Facebook his last known words: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

In the wake of Clementi's death, Facebook pledged to work with gay and lesbian advocacy groups to help make the Internet a more gay-friendly place. But perhaps Facebook's officials should start that initiative by looking inward: News reports now indicate that the user data Facebook sends to advertisers may be unwittingly outing some gay users of the site.

In the latest in a seemingly never-ending controversy over the use of data that the social media site extracts from users, a team of researchers at Microsoft Research and the Max Planck Institute found (PDF) found that advertisers can, in the words of Ars Technica's Jacqui Cheng, "ferret out gay users from straight users" with a simple click on an ad by a user.

The researchers set up Facebook profiles for straight men, straight women, a gay woman and a gay man to monitor the types of ads that appeared on the site when each user was logged in to their profile. They found that the ads for the gay and lesbian users were different -- though not blatantly so to the user -- from the ads that appeared for the straight users. The researchers also found that when users click such ads, they essentially reveal their sexual orientation to advertisers on the other side.

"If the advertiser in question also collects other data, such as Facebook ID, the info can be tied together without much thought, even if the user has not made that information public," writes Cheng. "The collection of such information (especially when tied to something as sensitive as sexual orientation) could spell disaster for a user who thinks he's being fastidious when keeping his profile private."

As  Internet security blogger Christopher Soghoian observes:

This means that simply by clicking on a Facebook ad, a user could be revealing a bit of highly sensitive personal information to an advertiser, simply due to the fact that the advertiser has only targeted a particular group (gender, sexuality, religion) for that advertisement. Thus, the moment you arrive at the advertiser's website, they now know that the IP address and cookie value they have assigned to you is associated with someone that is gay, muslim, or a republican. ... I have a tough time imagining that Facebook will be able to sweep this under the carpet, or, that class action attorneys won't jump on this.

The one surefire protection against this sort of sensitive data-mining, it seems, is for users simply not to click on Facebook's ads.

Facebook did not immediately respond to The Upshot's request for comment.

(Photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg: AP)

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