Facebook’s Offline User Tracking is Creepy

Facebook makes no secret of the fact that it tracks your activities while you’re logged in and surfing on the social networking site to boost up its ad units, but what you don’t know is that Facebook has been collecting information about you from various commercial data brokers.

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Since Facebook is a free-to-use platform, a majority of its revenue comes from advertisements. Facebook has clearly mentioned in its privacy policy that it tracks users’ behaviour in order to serve them ads better suited to their needs and liking.

According to ProPublica, Facebook collects information about you from various offline commercial data brokers like Datalogix (Oracle Data Cloud), Epsilon, Acxiom, Experian and Quantium.

Using a Chrome extension, built by their own reporters, ProPublica was able to declassify what all categories are used by Facebook. They offered users to try out the extension and share the data with its reporters.

The crowdsourced data revealed that offline data includes categories like your gender, location, favourite restaurants, what all you purchase at the supermarket, how much do you earn as well as how much do you owe and much more information about you in a total of 52,235 categories.

Facebook uses all this data to display relevant ads to the users, but the social media giant doesn’t tell users about this data collection, citing that the same data is available for sale to other platforms as well.

What’s Creepy About This?

Facebook doesn’t use its algorithm just to serve relevant news and information on a user’s news feed, but also makes use of the same to categorise the users into tens of thousands of micro-targetable categories.

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ProPublica’s crowd-sourced data revealed that these micro-targetable categories range from the choice of your food to things such as ‘ethnic affinity’.

“Ethnic Affinity categorises people based on their association with African-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups. Advertisers can target ads toward a group — or exclude ads from being shown to a particular group,” the report reads.

In October, the publication purchased a Facebook ad in the housing category which didn’t include African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans — means the social networking company is illegally facilitating racial discrimination via its advertisement medium.

The company, later on, said that it would build an automated system to avoid discrimination. However, it doesn’t end here — race is just one form of discrimination.

ProPublica’s crowd-source chrome extension also allowed users to react to the categories assigned to them on three grounds — Wrong, Creepy, Spot On — and the most creepy category voted by users was one called ‘Away from Home’.

Such data mining and collection also curbs on a users’ privacy. Facebook collecting database in abundance means the company knows a lot more about you than you might even recollect about yourself at a certain point in time.

Facebook allows you to opt-out of these data service, but it’s easier said than done.

How Does One Opt-out?

Facebook makes opting-out look very easy, but it’s actually not. Facebook’s manager of privacy and public policy says that users who don’t want their information to be available to the social networking site via third-party brokers can opt-out of the data brokers’ service by contacting them directly through this help page.

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“Facebook works with a select group of third-party data providers to help businesses connect with people who might be interested in their products or services. We’ve designed these partnerships with people’s privacy in mind. People using our services have control over the ads they see,” the company states.

Users can also request data brokers to reveal the information that they hold about them, but not without several complicated procedures which include, but are not limited to, sharing your social security number with them, verifying your identity by submitting documents such as a driver’s license.

Basically, throw more information a data miners way to get rid of the information they already have on us — that must be the right way to go!

Julia Angwin, one of the reporters at ProPublica even tried the way Facebook suggested its users to opt-out but ended up not being able to remove data from her from these broker sites even after submitting the required documents. 65 of the 92 data brokers needed her to send more information about herself to get the existing information removed from their system.

The report also notes that out of the 29,000 categories that were provided by Facebook to advertisers, 600 of them were collected from data brokers, and they largely included categories related to finances like ‘People with household income between $100K and $125K’ or ‘Individuals that frequently transact at lower cost department stores’.

Facebook might be doing all this categorisation just to facilitate its advertiser base — who also happen to be the company’s bread and butter — but one can certainly not ignore the privacy concerns stemming out of such data collection activity, whether it be to share more relevant ads with its users.

Such categorisations in the world of internet by a company as big as Facebook can lead to a lot of discrimination on various grounds and to nip this problem in the bud should be something we all must be concerned about, lest the day isn’t far when privacy is just a word.

Last updated on 03 February, 2022

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