The blogosphere has been abuzz with the release of a study by Microsoft and the Max Planck Institute in Germany that reveals that Facebook’s ad-targeting program can potentially out gay users to advertisers. Researchers monitored six fake profiles of varying gender preference:one gay man, one lesbian woman, two heterosexual women and two heterosexual men.
While the ads for the heterosexual and lesbian women weren’t so different, those of the gay and heterosexual men were. The study found that even if a Facebook user’s profile in no way indicates that he or she is gay, one might infer that he or she is gay based on the user’s interests and the ads he or she clicks on.
The study reports, “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 email address if he signs up on the advertiser’s site).”
While I have railed on Facebook’s advertising policies in the past, I think the public’s reaction to this study has been much ado about nothing. By now, anyone with a Facebook profile understands that there are inherent privacy risks involved.
Besides, Facebook’s ad-targeting service does not broadcast that a certain user is gay, it simply says that based on that user’s interests, he or she might also be interested in some gay-oriented products or services. Just like when I visit CNNSI.com I am shown ads linking to straight-oriented websites, like that of Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Edition (which I could not be less interested in).
With the advent of contextual and behavioral ad targeting the same risks are present anytime someone visits a gay-oriented website and clicks on a banner ad, whether or not that ad is for a gay-oriented product or service. The simple fact is, every time we surf the web, we run the risk of revealing personal information tied to our IP address just through the way we navigate the internet. Living in the information age affords us previously unimaginable convenience, but it is not without its drawbacks.