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Facebook Knows A Lot About Your Offline Habits, Buying Third-Party Data To Serve Better Targeted Ads

31 December 2016, 9:04 am EST By Alexandra Burlacu Tech Times
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Facebook has been steadily purchasing user data from third-party data brokers, including information such as household income estimates, shopping habits, and more to serve better targeted ads. Opting out is not impossible, but it's rather cumbersome.  ( Gerd Altmann | Pixabay )

Facebook, one of the world's most popular social networks, has more than 2 billion users and it knows more about them than they realize.

It's not much of a surprise that Facebook wants to know as much about its users as possible, as any bit of extra info can help it serve better targeted ads. For a good while now, Facebook has been as much a social network as an advertising company and it even moved to block ad blockers on desktop a few months ago to ensure that users can't avoid ads.

There's no escaping Facebook ads, but the company is at least trying to make the ads as targeted as it can. With that in mind, it has been purchasing additional demographic information from third-party data brokers.

Facebook Tapping Data Brokers

These independent companies give Facebook data on household income estimates, users' shopping habits, and more information on users' offline behavior. Through this process, Facebook aims to determine which advertising categories are the most relevant to its users.

According to a new report from ProPublica, Facebook tracks roughly 29,000 demographic indicators and about 98 percent of them are based on users' activity on Facebook.

Roughly 600 data points, meanwhile, reportedly come from independent data brokers such as Experian, Acxiom and others. Users reportedly don't get access to this demographic data obtained from third parties.

What About Users' Control?

Facebook says that it doesn't have to give users details on how it taps third-party data brokers because those services are doing the tracking, not Facebook.

"Our approach to controls for third-party categories is somewhat different than our approach for Facebook-specific categories," says Steve Satterfield, a Facebook privacy and public policy manager, as cited by ProPublica. "This is because the data providers we work with generally make their categories available across many different ad platforms, not just on Facebook."

Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy, further tells ProPublica that Facebook is being dishonest in these practices.

"Facebook is bundling a dozen different data companies to target an individual customer, and an individual should have access to that bundle as well," Chester says.

Opting Out

Satterfield, meanwhile, adds that users who don't want Facebook to access their information should talk to the data brokers directly. Facebook's help center offers a list with links to opt-out of six data providers from which it purchases personal user information.

However, having to contact each of these providers directly makes it more difficult to opt-out and the process can be rather cumbersome, in some cases involving a written request and a copy of a government-issued ID sent by mail.

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