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Facebook accused of 'outing' gay users

Social networking giant Facebook has been accused of 'outing' gay users via the targeted ads displayed on the platform.

Advertisers can find out information about users' sexual preferences, even when the users haven't made that information public on the site, according to a new study conducted by Saikat Guha of Microsoft Research India, and Bin Cheng and Paul Francis of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Software Systems

The researchers set up six bogus Facebook profiles: two for straight men, two for straight women, one for a gay man and another for a lesbian woman.

All of the profiles declared the user's age as 25, and all shared the same hometown of Washington DC.

Unsurprisingly, researchers recorded that the profiles of straight men and women were targeted with ads aimed at heterosexual users, while the gay and lesbian accounts targeted with adverts relating to their sexual preference.

More interesting is the fact that some adverts which appeared completely neutral of sexual preference - in one case, an advert for a nursing degree course - were exclusively targeted at gay men. And by clicking on them, a user would effectively be declaring his sexuality to the advertiser.

"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, (cookie, IP address, or email address if he signs up on the advertiser's site)," explain the study's authors.