The outing of University of Texas-Austin students to their parents as a consequence of a little-known Facebook privacy glitch has reignited longstanding concerns over the social network’s treatment of its LGBT users’ private information. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the two students — Bobbi Duncan and Taylor McCormick — had placed highly restrictive privacy controls on the information , but were unintentionally outed by the head of their LGBT choir when they joined its Facebook group to get access to the rehearsal schedule:
The president of the chorus, a student organization at the University of Texas campus here, had added Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick to the choir’s Facebook group. The president didn’t know the software would automatically tell their Facebook friends that they were now members of the chorus.
The two students were casualties of a privacy loophole on Facebook—the fact that anyone can be added to a group by a friend without their approval. As a result, the two lost control over their secrets, even though both were sophisticated users who had attempted to use Facebook’s privacy settings to shield some of their activities from their parents.
The consequences for Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick were dire — the former’s father “left vitriolic messages on her phone, demanding she renounce same-sex relationships, she says, and threatening to sever family ties,” causing her to spiral into a depression (she’s thankfully improved since). The latter’s dad “didn’t talk to his son for three weeks.”
The Journal notes that Facebook is making an admirable effort to make its privacy policies clearer to LGBT users, but this isn’t the first time the company’s opaque rules have outed LGBT individuals. In 2009, Library of Congress employee Peter TerVeer was outed to his supervisor as a consequence of a Facebook policy change; he was met with a systematic pattern of discrimination that cost him his job and ultimately his home. A glitch in Facebook’s advertising programming had previously sent confidential information on users’ sexual orientation to third-party advertisers.