Thousands of companies actively monitor Facebook users for targeted ads – report

A recent study has shed light on the extensive monitoring of Facebook users, revealing that thousands of companies are actively tracking individual activities on the platform to target ads. LiveRamp, Acxiom, Experian Marketing Services, Hearts & Science, ODC CA, Epsilon Audience Data Provider, The Home Depot, OMD USA, 4C, and Amazon were among the top companies identified in the study.

According to the research, as many as 7,000 companies are monitoring the online activities of individual Facebook users. The data collected includes information from events and custom audiences, offering insights into user behavior both within and outside Meta’s platforms.

Custom audiences allow advertisers to upload customer lists using identifiers like email addresses and mobile advertising IDs. This data is then used to target ads across Meta’s platforms. Events, on the other hand, encompass user interactions with brands, both online and in the physical world.

The signals for data collection originate from Meta software code embedded in mobile apps, tracking pixels on websites, and server-to-server tracking. The study, conducted with a panel of 709 volunteers sharing their Facebook data archives, found that a total of 186,892 companies sent data to Facebook.

On average, each participant had their data sent to Facebook by 2,230 companies, with some individuals having data shared by over 7,000 companies. The study highlighted that a significant percentage of the companies were small retailers, non-national brands, or had unidentifiable names.

Consumer Reports, in collaboration with The Markup, conducted the study and called for policy changes covering data collection practices. Recommendations include the adoption of data-minimization strategies, limiting the collection of data to what is strictly necessary for providing a service. Another suggestion is the implementation of authorized agents to act on behalf of consumers to protect their rights.

The study also urged increased transparency across Meta apps, proposing the creation of ad archives that allow the public to view all ads served to users on the platform. Despite Meta’s transparency tools and terms and conditions, Consumer Reports identified opacity in the identities of many data providers, and noted that advertisers often disregarded user opt-out requests.

While the study offers insights into data monitoring practices on Facebook, it acknowledges potential biases in the sample due to the self-selection of participants, who are likely to be more privacy-conscious and technically inclined. The findings highlight ongoing concerns about data privacy and user consent in the digital advertising landscape.

Written by Sophie Blake


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