An international privacy group has accused Facebook of “destroying the life of a young man.” Privacy International says a British Facebook user was booted from his home after his homophobic parents spotted ads on his Facebook page targeted at a gay man. Apparently, they had not previously realized their son was gay. The group claims that the man, who they call “David,” had not indicated on Facebook that he was interested in men, but that Facebook had figured this fact out and started showing him ads for things like gay cruises and gay speed dating.
David knew the ads were displayed on his profile, but could do nothing to remove them no matter how hard he tried. They just kept coming back. On this occasion he made the mistake of leaving his computer screen on while going to the shop, unaware that his parents were to return earlier than expected to the house.
Facebook is calling foul on the story. (Update: So has Privacy International in a way; on Wednesday night, they took the blog post down, citing the privacy of the young man.)
“We sympathize with anyone who has been the victim of discrimination and we are saddened by the story Privacy International shared on its blog. However, this case is about appalling discrimination and unauthorized access to a person’s account, not advertising,” says a spokesperson. “Our ads are only shown to people based on the information they have chosen to post or add to their profile — the same information that would have been visible as a result of the unauthorized access.”
An academic study once found that, even if someone doesn’t indicate their sexual leanings on Facebook, the make-up of their friends can reveal their preferences. But that’s not the issue here. On the page to create a Facebook ad, you can target people by gender, by the gender in which they’re interested, and by their interests. If the story is accurate, then it’s possible that even if David had not indicated his sexuality explicitly, perhaps he listed Brokeback Mountain as his favorite movie, which advertisers then used as a target. Facebook users don’t have a whole lot of control over how they’re targeted, beyond changing the information in their profiles, but they can “x” out ads they’re not interested in. (On Google, by contrast, you can go to the Ad Preferences Manager to see — and change — how you’re categorized for ad targeting. Though, in my case, Google can’t seem to keep it straight that I’m a female, no matter how many many times I remove “male” from my targeting cookie.)
The story from Privacy International is rather vague and came to the group from “one of David’s friends.” (David’s whereabouts are apparently currently unknown.) So it may not be entirely accurate. From what’s there, though, it seems that the teen’s parents are more to blame for his predicament than Facebook: for snooping on his account (he had left himself signed into Facebook on his home computer) and for their intolerance about the lifestyle of his behavioral advertising.
That said, the increased targeting that’s happening, in ads and now even in Google search, means anyone looking at your computer over your shoulder might get more of a peek into your life than you might expect.