More privacy problems for Facebook

Faith Merino · October 23, 2010 · Short URL:

Only these are ones that haven't actually happened yet

How private is private information when you have a profile on the most far-reaching social networks in the world?  Apparently, it’s all but meaningless, according to two recently published academic papers that find that under certain circumstances, advertisers can access a wealth of private and sensitive information on Facebook, including relationship status and sexual orientation, the New York Times reported Saturday.

In one experiment, researchers from Microsoft in India and the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Germany found that advertisers can determine a person’s sexual orientation using subtle ad manipulations.  The researchers created six fake Facebook profiles, three of which were men and three of which were women.  One individual from each group identified him or herself as being interested in a person of the same sex.  The two groups were shown different ads, as was to be expected with targeted ads.  Notably, the self-identified gay profiles received ads for gay bars.

Even more interesting, researchers found that some of the ads that apparently had no connection to sexual orientation were displayed on the gay profiles but were not displayed on the heterosexual profiles.  For example, the gay man was the only one of his group to receive an ad for a nursing degree in Florida.  Thus, if the user clicks on the ad, he is revealing to the advertiser that he is gay.

“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,” the researchers wrote.

In another study, Aleksandra Korolova, a researcher at Stanford University, found that she could determine the age and sexual orientation of Facebook users by tailoring certain ads to their profiles. Using public data to find the age, location, gender, and interests of a Facebook user, Korolova placed an ad on Facebook that was targeted at those characteristics and also to users who are interested in same-sex relationships.  If Facebook’s system indicated that such an ad had been displayed to someone, it essentially confirmed that that person was gay, because no one else on Facebook was a match for those same attributes.

Korolova told the New York Times that the same tactic could be used to root out other sensitive stats on an individual, including religious and political affiliation, and marital status.  She also told reporters that when she alerted Facebook of the privacy vulnerability, the company responded by modifying its system to prohibit ads based on targeting criteria that matches fewer than 20 people. 

Korolova contended that one might easily subvert this modification by creating 20 profiles that match the characteristics of the individual whose information one is trying to weed out, but Facebook denied this, arguing that its system would detect 20 profiles created by the same person.

Nevertheless, the damning papers come just days after the Wall Street Journal published an investigative report finding that all of the top ten Facebook apps have been inappropriately transmitting private information on users and their friends to third party advertisers. 

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