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Can Gay Users Unintentionally Out Themselves to Facebook Advertisers?

Posted Oct 21, 2010 4:20 PM CDT
By Sarah Mui

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Researchers from Microsoft and Germany's Max Planck Institute reported in a recent paper that there are Facebook advertisements targeted to users based on sexuality, regardless of the user's display preferences—and they say this has the potential to reveal a user's sexuality to advertisers.

The researchers experimented by setting up six test profiles, keeping age and geographic information equal but adjusting sexual preferences, according to the paper (PDF). They found far more ads shown exclusively to their gay male profiles than to their lesbian female profiles. Of the 66 ads they found that were shown exclusively to their gay male test profiles, half did not mention "gay" anywhere in the text.

"The danger with such ads, unlike the gay bar ad where the target demographic is blatantly obvious, is that the user reading the ad text would have no idea that by clicking it he would reveal to the advertiser both his sexual preference and a unique identifier (cookie, IP address, or e-mail address if he signs up on the advertiser's site)," the paper said.

Gawker, which noted the paper, also poses this hypothetical:

"Cookies and IP addresses aside, let's say you click on that ad for the nursing school that targeted its advertising only to gay men. You fill out an application and mention that you saw their ad on Facebook. The school now knows you're a man who is interested in men, even if you've hidden your sexual preference using Facebook's privacy settings. See why this might be a problem?"

Gawker also notes that Facebook's privacy policy states that while Facebook doesn't share users' info with advertisers without their consent, they "allow advertisers to choose the characteristics of users who will see their advertisements, and we may use any of the non-personally identifiable attributes we have collected (including information you may have decided not to show to other users, such as your birth year or other sensitive personal information or preferences) to select the appropriate audience for those advertisements."

Facebook e-mailed a statement to Msnbc.com stating that their ad guidelines prohibit advertisers from using user data collected from their Facebook ads, and that Facebook also requires that when advertisers target ads based on attributes, said attributes must be directly relevant to the offer in the ad. Furthermore, the statement said, Facebook takes action when users call such violations to their attention.

Christopher Soghoian, a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University's school of informatics and computing, offers two possible solutions in a post on his blog, slight paranoia: Facebook could forbid advertisers from targeting ads based on sexuality; or Facebook could add a disclosure below such ads that indicate the user is only seeing them because of his or her sexuality.

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