Privacy International recently wrote in a blog post that one teen in London had his life turned upside down due to Facebook’s targeted ads. How did this happen? According to the group, the teen had been hiding the fact that he was homosexual from his family. So far he had been successful in doing so, except one thing was threatening to inadvertently expose him. That one thing was Facebook’s targeted ads feature.
Somehow, Facebook had managed to figure out that the teen was gay, and thus began showing him ads for “gay cruises”, “gay speed dating”, and the like. He hadn’t indicated in his profile that he was “interested in men”, so he was really stumped on how Facebook found out about his sexual orientation.
Wanting to keep his secret safe, the teen had tried to do everything in his power to get the gay ads to stop, but to no avail. One day, he made the mistake of leaving his computer open while he went to the shop. By coincidence, his parents came home early and saw the ads on his computer. His parents then decided to kick him out of the house.
The details of the story itself are hazy and there’s no access to the teen’s Facebook page so it’s difficult to draw conclusions as to how his actions cued the social networking site on his sexual preference. Perhaps it was in his choice of ‘likes’ or perhaps it was through his comments and status updates. Some of the more skeptical could believe that perhaps Facebook found out through the data it receives by tracking users browsing habits even after they log off from the site.
Regardless of how Facebook found out, it still remains to be said that the targeted ad service does seem somewhat invasive when seen in this light. It can draw conclusions that we don’t particularly want it to. The worst part is it that we don’t have any control over it. About the only options are to click that little ‘x’ button whenever we see an ad that we don’t like or install Ad-Blocking browser plugins. Other than that, there’s really very little that we can do to control what we see in these ads. Sites like Google have readily given us control over our ad preferences, so why can’t Facebook?
When accused of ruining the young man’s life, Facebook responded by saying that the blame should be laid on the intolerant parents and not on them. However, while there may be a measure of truth in that retort, Facebook still cannot deny that they share some of the responsibility, especially if you consider the invasive nature of their targeted ads.