HomoTech: Facebook Users Beware
Brad Higgins doesn't use Facebook anymore. Unlike most of his peers, the 23-year-old former student at University of Nevada-Reno doesn't want to "friend" anyone, does not he harbor even the slightest urge to "like" anything on the network. He wouldn't even allow EDGE to print his real name because, as he says: "The internet has a long memory."
Higgins blames the social network giant for an episode in which he was threatened by his father to renounce same-sex relationships or sever family ties. Higgins hasn't spoke to his father since October, making the last two months of last year and the first two months of 2013 lonely.
It all started one evening last fall, when Higgins joined the Q Club.
"I thought it would be safe because the Q Club isn't recognized by the school," he told EDGE. "I knew how my father would react if he ever found I was gay. And I was convinced that if he was ever going to find out it would be from me, when I felt he was ready and I worked up enough nerve."
Less than 24 hours later, Higgins' cell phone was ringing. The caller ID read "Dad." Thinking nothing of it (his father, recently retired, called often) Higgins picked up the phone and all hell broke loose on the other end of the phone. "He was yelling and just saying venomous things," he recalls. "There was no calming him down. This was a one-way conversation. He told me, in not so many words, 'You can't be this, son. You have to walk away from that life or walk away from this family.'"
Higgins joins many other Facebook users who have been inadvertently outed. Despite safeguarding personal information, both on and off Facebook, the secret that they are LGBT is discovered.
An article in The Wall Street Journal on Oct. 13, 2012 - around the time that Higgins' relationship with his family crumbled - detailed how Bobbi Duncan and Taylor McCormick were outed on Facebook. The president of the LGBT choir at the University of Texas-Austin had added their names to the choir's Facebook discussion group, which made the two students casualties of a privacy loophole. The choirmaster had no idea that listing Duncan and McCormick as part of the group, the software would automatically tell their Facebook friends that they were now members of an out-gay chorus.
Duncan, 22, considered herself a sophisticated Facebook user who had attempted to use its privacy settings to shield some of her activities from her parents. She said she cried all night on a friend's couch. "I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach with a bat," she recalled.
Technology has rendered obsolete the conventional definition of personally identifiable information. Privacy as we know it is disappearing one download, post or friend request at a time.
Facebook officials have routinely stated that the company is committed to the principle of one identity for users. It has shut down accounts of people who use pseudonyms and multiple accounts, including those of dissidents and protesters in China and Egypt. The company says its commitment to "real names" makes the site safer for users. It is also at the core of the service it sells to advertisers - namely, access to real people.
McCormick was studying to become a pharmacist when the choirmaster accidentally outed him. McCormick had come out in July 2011 to his mother but not to his father, whom the son describes as a member of a conservative church that teaches homosexuality is sin. In what he calls a "privacy lockdown" on posts that his father could see, McCormick set his Facebook controls accordingly. "We have the one big secret when we're young," he told the Journal. "I knew not everyone was going to be accepting."
Like many campuses, U.T.-Austin offered a safe space for LGBT people to come out without their parents knowing. It was with that understanding that Duncan and McCormick attended the first rehearsal for the Queer Chorus. According to Christopher Acosta, the chorus' then-president, the two did well. Duncan had agreed to play piano, and McCormick surprised the chorus with his bass. That night, Acosta added the two to the chorus' Facebook page. When he created the group, Acosta had left the security setting "open," meaning both membership and content are public.
"I was so gung-ho about the chorus being unashamedly loud and proud," Acosta said. But what he didn't know - and many millions of others still don't - is that when a page creator adds a member, a notice is generated that can appear on friends' Facebook pages. So when Acosta listed Duncan and McCormick, Facebook posted a note to their friends - including their fathers -that they had joined the Queer Chorus. The social network essentially overrode the intent of the privacy settings both students had used to hide such posts from their dads. Facebook's online help center explains that open as well as closed groups are visible to the public and will publish notification to users' friends. But it doesn't let users pre-approve their addition to a group or to conceal it from friends.
Like Higgins' father, Duncan's dad was enraged and called repeatedly that night. He threatened to stop paying her car insurance and told her to go on Facebook and renounce the chorus and the "gay lifestyle." On his Facebook page two days later, he wrote: "To all you queers. Go back to your holes and wait for GOD. Hell awaits you pervert. Good luck singing there."
Duncan says she was depressed for weeks. "I couldn't function," she said. "I would be in class and not hear a word anyone was saying."