Should Facebook Users Worry About Ad Snooping?

from the probably-not dept

The New York Times's Bits blog points us to an interview with Esther Dyson in which she raises questions about the way social networking sites (especially Facebook) are planning use customers' data. She seems like she might be lumping together two different issues that ought to be kept separate. If she's simply saying that Facebook should get permission before sharing private user data with advertisers, it's hard to argue with that. But she seems to be making the broader claim that Facebook shouldn't even use private information to choose ads on its own site without getting the user's permission first. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The information is already on Facebook's servers, so it's not likely to create new security risks to have the advertising algorithm take the information into account. Moreover, targeted ads can be chosen without ever giving advertisers access to anybody's private information. A shoe store might, for example, ask to have its advertising displayed to every Facebook user who's under 35, female, and within 50 miles of the 63105 area code. The shoe store would never get a list of Facebook users who met that criteria, nor would they be given the specific age or zip code of people who click on the ad. Rather, Facebook's own software would automatically display those ads and then bill the shoe store based on the number of impressions or clicks that were generated.

As far as I can see, there's absolutely no privacy issue there. Indeed, the debate gives me a sense of Deja Vu, because similar concerns were raised about contextual ads in GMail. As I pointed out at the time, having a server scan your email in order to choose ads to display isn't "snooping" in any meaningful sense. Once people realized that computer algorithms, not human beings, would be choosing who gets which ads, almost everyone agreed that it wasn't a privacy issue. The same argument applies to Facebook. Having an algorithm on Facebook's server use personal information to pick ads is completely different from giving advertisers access to users' private information.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Coveralls, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 10:06am

    I think its a good idea for facebook, but if you were the business requesting the advertising how would you know if they really are targeting your desired demographics? Good post, keep up the good work.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Thom, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 10:19am


    I suspect it depends on what information is being used and when.

    1) Let's assume the ads shown on John Doe's Facebook pages are based his publicly viewable data (stats, interests, comments, etc) on the assumption that his friends share similar interests. No harm, no foul. Nothing new is revealed to anyone about John or about any viewer of his page.

    2) Let's assume the ads shown on John's Facebook pages are based in part on his private information (again assuming his friends' may have likes in common). This could suggest aspects of John's life that he doesn't want publicly known. Potential for some risk to John.

    3) Let's assume the ads shown on John's Facebook pages are based in part or whole on a particular viewer's private information. This would provide the best ad targetting and on the face of it would seem harmless assuming only that viewer would see the ads. However, a user could be viewing John's profile in the company of others and the ads could be potentially revealing. Potential risk to the viewer, but the same risk they face viewing targetted/tracked ads all over the net.

    I'd say scenario two is worth some consideration, but is so slight a risk as to be dismissed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    IM NOT GAY, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 10:29am

    Nunya bidness, I say...

    I am disturbed by Thom's scenario 2. If I have a gay friend, does the algorithm spider those attributes as well? I don't want people viewing my page to think I'm buggering anyone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Tim Lee, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 10:45am

    Re: Perhaps

    I'm pretty sure we're talking about #1 and #3. The goal is to get the viewer to click on the ad, and the most useful information for that purpose is the viewer's profile information. I agree with you that #2 would raise more serious concerns, but I can't imagine anyone actually doing that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Jacob, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 12:19pm


    Thom, I'm 99.9% positive they wouldn't base their targeting on the person's profile the viewer is using. I mean come on.. What good would come from me looking at "Lane Bryant's 50% off sale for Large Female lingerie" when I'm looking at a fat female's profile? I'm sure they are smart enough to design an algorithm based on the current session so their TARGET ads get to the TARGET.

    If you were an advertiser for Lane Bryant would you pay for your ads going to a skinny male audience? Using the current session vars for the ads would set them apart and bring more revenue. Skateboard lovers getting ads for Skateboards. Musicians getting ads for instruments. Heck - Fans of the band "Daughtry" getting ads from Ticket Master to buy tickets to the show down the street -- thats the kind of advertisement I want.

    Currently, I'm getting a Facebook Flyer thats all in German and Ads like "Free Coach Purse -- Click here!" so I welcome the change.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Thom, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 12:43pm


    I don't know that I agree with you Jacob. What kind of ads do you see when you visit a tech site? An auto site? A fashion site? A food site? They're usually ads targetted to the content unless it's possible to target you more specifically. Even then good ads tend to slant toward the site content and not something out of left field. The content at Facebook IS the person's profile.

    Also, who says the only viewers of a heavy woman's profile are skinny men? Most of the repeat viewers will be her friends, family, classmates, and people who feel they have something in common with her. Maybe she likes and wears Lane Bryant. Maybe she looks good in it. Maybe her friends and family will follow the links to buy outfits for her. Maybe other heavy women will follow the links to buy their own outfits because she's so fine.

    Anyway, I think you seriously misinterpreted my post. I never said these are the ways they would or should target ads. I said consider these potential means of using members data to target ads and whether they have any privacy issues.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. Love Targeted Advertisements

    As a consumer, I appreciate targeted advertising that gets rid of the junk I don't care about.

    As a business owner, the only proof that your targeted ads will reach the right customers will be shown in your sales figures. They could provide me with raw data but it wouldn't be proof to me. We all know numbers can be played with to accomplish anything we want.

    If I was a Facebook member I would not mind anyone using my raw unpersonalized data to better serve me up targeted ads, but how far is a company going to go? Would they start prying into my personal messages and profile to get a more precise target? Where is the line drawn?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Markus, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 1:35pm


    You are a cartoonist facing very real threats of beheading because you've insulted Islam. You pack your bags and move to the Caribbean island of Bonaire under an assumed name and take up residence in the Plaza Resort Bonaire. From there you continue to distribute your cartoons and keep your Facebook pages (among others) up to date. The majority of your pages are private and unviewable by all but your most trusted friends while the remainder continue to draw attention to you and antagonise your enemies.

    One morning Facebook decides to start using your private data to target their campaigns. In your private messages to friends you've discussed the beauty of Bonaire and how wonderful the hotel is. By coincidence both the island and the hotel are running ad compaigns and offering reduced rates trying to encourage travel and tourism. My what a wonderful chance for Facebook to provide your friends, associates, and page visitors-in-general with a reduced cost opportunity to visit you.

    Repeated graphic ads advertising "Come visit us at the Hotel Bonaire, only $100 a night through December," and "Visit the beautiful island of Bonaire," raise suspicion. The ad that takes the cake though is the personalized one that tells your hunters, "Come visit the beautiful island of Bonaire and experience the luxury of the Hotel Bonaire. Your friend loves it, and so will you! Only $100 a night through December."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Markus, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 1:41pm


    Ok, I suppose my example wouldn't ensure your beheading since you're staying in the Plaza Resort Bonaire and the ads are promoting the Hotel Bonaire. That was an error on my part. I'm sure the marketing company would do a better job than I and direct the assassins to the Plaza Resort where they could behead you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 5:50pm

    Re: Re: Perhaps

    I agree with you that #2 would raise more serious concerns, but I can't imagine anyone actually doing that.
    Then you simply aren't very imaginative.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Nov 6th, 2007 @ 5:57pm

    It's still the same

    As I pointed out at the time, having a server scan your email in order to choose ads to display isn't "snooping" in any meaningful sense.

    What difference does it make if a server or a human "scans" your mail? The result is the same. The application of computer technology to do the same thing that a human could does not automatically it different (despite what many patent holders seem to think).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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