Facebook Makes First Real Move to Curtail Abusive Ad Targeting on their Platform

Dare Obasanjo
Apr 1, 2018 · 3 min read

Today I was pleasantly surprised to see Facebook announced plans crackdown on ad targeting by email without consent. For people in the ad tech space, it’s understood that what Cambridge Analytica did

  • creating a profile of various users without their consent AND
  • targeting them individually with custom tailored ads

is actually a very common practice on Facebook. From the linked Verge article

But when I spoke with an analyst at Microstrategy that December, he told me that the company’s data set — by then, nearly 17.5 million strong — was based on just 52,600 actual installs, each of which provided access to an average of 332 friends.

Nor was Microstrategy doing something unusual. The tactic of collecting friend data, which has been featured prominently in the Cambridge Analytica coverage, was a well-known way of turning a handful of app users into a goldmine.

However despite the media hype, Facebook apps installed by your friends are a tiny slice of how non-consensual profiles are created of your activity then used to target you with ads. There’s a great article that reveals a lot of how this spying is done from the Wall Street Journal titled Facebook Really Is Spying on You, Just Not Through Your Phone’s Mic.

The article talks about how even shopping at a grocery store ends up building a profile of you that ends up being used to target you with ads. An excerpt below

The story of how that Sudafed ad got to me begins at Walgreens. As I bought tissues and Afrin, I keyed in my phone number so I could get loyalty points.

Information about the contents of my shopping bag began to spread. A third-party data collector — likely Nielsen-Catalina Solutions — added it to the purchase history it acquires from Walgreens.

Johnson & Johnson, maker of Sudafed, paid the data broker for that information. With the use of Facebook’s tools, the information from my loyalty card — email, phone number, etc. — was matched with my Facebook account. (Data brokers run personal information through an algorithm before uploading so it’s not identifiable, Facebook says, but it still can be matched with Facebook account information.)

No one really consented for ads to be targeted at them on Facebook simply for buying groceries, books or music from a physical store. However all of that activity is used to build profiles of you and target you on Facebook.

And yes, these seemingly mundane purchases can be used to predict your political affiliation and target you with political ads to swing your vote during an election.

Why Facebook’s Change is Massive

If Facebook does what is mentioned in the TechCrunch article then being targeted by NRA ads because you bought a gun cleaning kit at Walmart will be a thing of the past unless the NRA can prove you’re a member on their mailing list.

This change could decimate entire companies and hit Facebook’s revenues quite hard given how commonplace & effective these ad practices are. The Acxiom stock crash after Facebook removed behavioral targeting powered by data brokers would be small potatoes compared to the impact of this change.

If Facebook goes through with this, the impact to user privacy on the Internet would be huge and the effectiveness of micro targeted political ads fairly blunted.

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