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.

Filed Under: advertising, behavioral targeting, esther dyson
Companies: facebook

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  1. identicon
    Markus, 6 Nov 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."

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