Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook Is Allowing Ad Targeting Based on Contact Information You Have No Control Over

Kashmir Hill of Gizmodo, reporting on a new paper (PDF) by Giridhari Venkatadri, Piotr Sapiezynski, and Alan Mislove:

You might assume that you could go to your Facebook profile and look at your “contact and basic info” page to see what email addresses and phone numbers are associated with your account, and thus what advertisers can use to target you. But as is so often the case with this highly efficient data-miner posing as a way to keep in contact with your friends, it’s going about it in a less transparent and more invasive way.

Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.” I managed to place an ad in front of Alan Mislove by targeting his shadow profile. This means that the junk email address that you hand over for discounts or for shady online shopping is likely associated with your account and being used to target you with ads.

Facebook denied to Hill last year that they allowed targeting based on this information; after this paper was published, they admitted to doing so.

Even for Facebook’s low standards, this is exceptionally unethical: you haven’t given them permission to use this information; someone you know or someone you purchased products from has done that for you, probably with consent buried in an opaque privacy policy. There’s no way to opt out. And there are few-to-no regulations governing this.