Monday, October 25, 2010

Facebook's "Privacy" Test


There has been a lot of talk about Facebook's privacy or lack thereof. Recently, it was revealed that Facebook was accidentally outing gay users to outside firms through targeted ads. See article online article at Mail Online

I wanted to see if this was true so I decided to run a test. In this test, I wanted to see if I could capture the names and emails of gay men on Facebook. I run an organization called The Web Academy which offers free web design classes. I already have ads running on Facebook, so I simply decided to change who the ads targeted and directed those specific clicks to a custom landing page on my organization's web site. This would help me flag the respondents as gay.


Facebook Ad Setup:
Demographics
Age: 18 and up...
*Sex: M
*Interested in: M
Targeting
Location: NYC
Estimated Reach: 26,800
(notice that the ad is targeting men who are interested in men)



User Account Setup:
I setup a test user account and selected the setting "man interested in men" and simply browsed Facebook until I saw my targeted ad. It took about 1 day before the ad was seen.

User Activity:
Once displayed, I clicked on the ad and I arrived at my special landing page for gay respondents. To the casual user, everything would seem normal. I completed the form for free web design classes.


Web Site Owner:
From the web site owner's perspective, the respondent who clicked on the "gay" ad will be flagged as gay in the owner's web site database.
Below is the email confirmation that the web site owner receives after a gay respondent completes the online application.


Good and Evil:
There is some good that can be achieved with Facebook's granular level of demographics targeting. For instance, I may have an ad that promotes a positive event for the gay and lesbian community. As far as the evil, there are too many to mention.

I am a former Yahoo! employee and in 2008, I supported Yahoo's Right Media Ad network. One of my potential clients was a Black hair care company. They wanted to use Yahoo! to target African Americans. In 2008 and currently, ad networks do not track ethnicity for targeting for many reasons. Even though this company would be using the targeting for good, there would be others who would use this information for evil.

So, what do you think about Facebook's ad targeting capabilities and demographics targeting in general?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If a facebook user chooses to reveal that he is a man interested in men, I don't see how this is facebook's lack of privacy.

Educated internet users should know that anything revealed in a facebook profile can be searched and used for ad targeting.

It will be up to facebook and advertisers to do the right thing with ads that are allowed.

EHAM said...

@Anonymous...
Excellent points... and I agree... However, critics might say that if a person has a secure profile and hides his "interested in" selection. They would argue that there is a perceived sense of privacy.

What do you feel about this scenario? Person A is secretly a gay man who has secretly set his Facebook profile to interested in men. Person A bookmarks the insurance web site landing page from an ad that he saw on Facebook. Person B is a straight man and he is the cousin of Person A. Person B is visiting Person A from out of town and asks Person A about best insurance rates. Person A tells him that his has bookmarked a great insurance web site. Person B uses Person A's computer, clicks the bookmark and signs up for insurance. Now, in the insurance company's client database, Person B (a straight man) is flagged as gay. This scenario is a stretch, but how do you feel about it?