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Facebook can tell whether you're gay based on a few 'likes,' study says

by Teo Armus /

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Do you “like” Lady Gaga, Human Rights Campaign and “True Blood” on Facebook? Chances are advertisers think you’re gay, researchers say.

A new study published in the journal "Big Data" found that ad campaigns can make inferences about whether a user is gay based on as little as three likes, even when users intentionally withhold their sexual orientation.

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As Facebook users express concerns regarding their privacy and how their personal information is being used, the study raises concerns about “outing” people who are closeted — or those who just don’t want companies to know their sexual orientation in order to show them targeted ads.

"While some online users may benefit from being targeted based on inferences of their personal characteristics, others may find such inferences unsettling,” the study's authors, who hail from Columbia Business School, New York University and Northeastern University, wrote.

The study also noted that Facebook and advertisers can draw incorrect conclusions based on a user's likes. For example, a heterosexual user who likes the Facebook pages of Katy Perry and the TV show "Glee" — both popular among the LGBTQ community — may be identified as gay.

Unintended risks and consequences

Within the short history of the social network, several incidents have highlighted the real-life risks and consequences of online information about sexual orientation.

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In 2012, two students at the University of Texas at Austin were inadvertently outed to their families when they were added to a public Facebook group for members of the university’s LGBTQ chorus.

Following a Facebook policy change in 2009, the Facebook friends of a Washington, D.C. man were able to see that he had liked a page called “Two Dads.” The man was later fired by his employer.

"Cloaking device"

In response to these types of privacy issues, the study recommended that Facebook introduce a “cloaking device” that would protect users from having advertisers make inferences based on their likes — even if the inferences are correct. On average, hiding just 3.5 likes would keep Facebook from inferring that a user is gay, the study found.

If a user saw an ad on Facebook from an LGBTQ advocacy group, for example, the user could tell Facebook not to make similar inferences about them in the future.

"The cloaking device essentially tells the system: ‘do not draw inferences like this about me' - or more practically, 'do not show me ads or content for the same reasons that you decided to show me this,'" the authors said.

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