Facebook’s privacy problems continue this week after researchers discovered that Facebook may inadvertently be outing gay users to its advertisers. Saikat Guha from Microsoft and Bin Cheng and Paul Francis from the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems set out to study the challenges in targeted advertising systems (PDF) online, but found that advertisers can ferret out gay users from straight users just by looking at who’s clicking—even when that sexual preference is hidden.
The team set up profiles for straight men, straight women, a gay man, and a lesbian to see how the ads differed between the different types of users. The ads did change for the gay and lesbian users, though the difference in the ads was much greater for the gay males (compared to the straight males) than gay females, “indicating that advertisers target more strongly to [gay males]” reads the paper.
One of the problems with ad-driven operations – unscrupulous people can data mine information that you keep private. Using ads, they could figure out who is gay, even if the Facebook user have not publicly said so. Then, using the ads, they can tie together that information with a Facebook ID, and out the person.
So, almost any information you put on Facebook, even if you keep it private, might be available to the unscrupulous.
This might only change if Facebook actually makes some punitive decisions. But since their real customers include the advertisers, it may not happen. Access of advertisers to this data is why Facebook is worth billions.
Essentially, do not put anything on Facebook that you would not want others to see – because someone is going to know it anyway. But refusing to put important information about yourself lowers the value of Facebook to its advertisers.
And never click on ads – because you are giving people important information about preferences for free. But refusing to do this lowers the value of Facebook to its advertisers.
So, the things that people should do to protect their privacy are actually things that hurt Facebook’s bottom line. Which is why they will not really do anything about these things nor provide real control.