Accessibility links

Breaking News

Facebook Search Of Tehrani 'Men Who Like Men' Highlights Privacy Debate

Browsers at an Internet cafe in Tehran (file photo)
Browsers at an Internet cafe in Tehran (file photo)
A British "gadget geek" has fired the latest volley in the great debate over personal privacy on Facebook, taking a self-described "quick, cheap shot" at the social networking giant and its latest product.

Tom Scott used a Tumblr blog to highlight the ease with which even the most casual "graph search" can produce results that are potentially awkward to people who like a good joke or who haven't kept pace with the best practices on their privacy settings.

Such distress could be magnified for users in places as heavily policed as Iran, home to "more than 1,000" of the Facebook profiles cited in one of Scott's examples.

"Graph search" is the tool that Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg recently launched in beta version in hopes of indexing content -- for the company as well as for users -- and revolutionizing web searches.

Scott says in "Actual Facebook Graph Searches" that he was taking "graph search" for a test spin this week when he uncovered a number of what he suggests are "unsettling" discoveries.

Among the searches that Scott cites is one that turns up many profiles of "Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran, Iran," along with a list of "places where they've worked."

Such searches are harmless enough in many societies. But this one's arguably more worrying because the users live in a country whose hard-line president has signaled little tolerance for homosexuality. Mahmud Ahmadinejad once called it one of the "ugliest" of human behaviors.

He also famously told an audience in 2007 in response to a question about discrimination based on gender or sexual preferences, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," eliciting a wave of laughter from the crowd at New York's Columbia University. Ahmadinejad continued: "We do not have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it."

Scott responds convincingly enough to suggestions that he might be "giving ideas to repressive governments," writing:

I’d bet money they’ve already thought of it and have already done those searches. The searches I’m making now were suggested on the day that Facebook Graph Search was announced, more than a week ago.

Also, I think they have more accurate and time-tested intelligence-gathering services than Facebook Graph Search...

He points out that "for the 'Iranian men who like men' search, a lot of that may be mistranslation: it could be interpreted as the literal 'interested in meeting' rather than 'would like to date.'"

It is also worth noting that each of the Tehran examples shown lists "males and females" under the "Interested in" heading -- seemingly the safe choice in Iran's clerically led system.

Scott hides the identities of all the profiles he shows.

Some of Scott's other test cases include searches of "married men who like prostitutes" and "mothers of Catholics from Italy who like Durex," a condom maker. He adds that some searches were "so unsettling that [I] haven't put them on here."

But add Scott to the list of people who have issued loud and clear privacy warnings to Facebook's 1 billion-plus users:

I’m not sure I’m making any deeper point about privacy: I think, at this point, we’re basically all just rubbernecking -- myself included. Facebook does have good privacy settings: but there are many, many people who don’t know how to use them!

Searching questions about the death of privacy will be left as an exercise for the reader.

Countless commentators have pointed out that such searches -- and electronic media in general -- fail to account for humor, irony, or any number of other traits that actual human beings might display "among friends" on a social network.

As Tech Crunch's Natasha Lomas put it: "Leave your humor at the door, all who enter here."

Sam Biddle on Gizmodo introduced his own list of disturbing search results in a post called "These People Are Now Sharing Horrible Things About Themselves Thanks to Facebook Search." He doesn't bother to hide the identities of his unwitting subjects, whom he chides for insensitivity, racism, and sexism:

Nothing that wasn't public before Graph Search will be public after Graph Search, but that doesn't change the fact that digging up inadvertently-shared info is effortless. This is bad news for probably millions and millions of people who are going to have trouble finding jobs once the new search goes public.

All these examples represent just some of the many "connections" that co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was referring to when he introduced Facebook's "graph search" to the public earlier this month, describing it as "one of the coolest things we've done in a while."

The aim is to help "index all the posts and all of the content on Facebook," Zuckerberg said.

"There are lots of different kinds of connections in the graph; there are 'friend' connections and 'follow' connections, and 'group' connections and 'event' connections, and photo tags and locations and 'likes' and comments, and all these different types of connections," Zuckerberg said.

It's an important innovation with implications for Facebook's continued success. It represents the first product since the social-networking giant's clumsily "disappointing" IPO last year. So it ain't going away anytime soon.

But there are just some dots that people might prefer to leave unconnected.

-- Andy Heil

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

Latest Posts