Facebook Ad Targeting Violates Privacy


Facebook employees work at the company’s new campus in Menlo Park. Facebook recently went public, allowing investors to purchase stock in the company.

Katie Hoskins, Staff Writer

On Feb. 1, the social networking site Facebook filed for an initial public offering (IPO), meaning that, for the first time, investors can buy stock in the company. According to The Wall Street Journal, the company’s estimated value will be between $75 and $100 billion when it opens this spring. While Facebook’s popularity and high revenues would indicate a financially profitable future, concerns must be raised over the fact that a significant portion of Facebook’s revenue comes from selling users’ personal information to advertisers. In other words, Facebook is violating our privacy for money.

Facebook makes most of its money by selling ad space to outside businesses that target their ads to users with certain interests, apps, and activities. According to the company’s recently filed S-1 form, 84 percent of Facebook’s revenue in 2011 came from advertising. When an outside business creates an ad for Facebook, they have the option of using an ad targeting system and can choose to specifically send their ad based on gender, age, birthday, interests, likes, and friends’ likes that users associate with their profiles.

This system of ad targeting is why advertisers are so interested in buying space on Facebook. Businesses see the millions of people that log into Facebook every day as a sea of prospective customers. What’s more, Facebook designers have learned to harness the personal information that users provide as a way of persuading businesses to buy ad space. The information that people originally intend as facts about themselves for friends and colleagues to see are used as a means of profit for Facebook advertisers. Facebook is literally using your information to convince businesses to give them more money, and it’s working.

Similarly, Google also uses your personal information and internet activity to increase their advertising profit, which in 2011 amounted to about 96 percent of their total revenue. However, Google has been around longer than Facebook and has had time to develop a much more in-depth targeting system that utilizes everything you do throughout the browser.  When you “Google” something, Google keeps track of that query and uses it to find ads that might be of interest to you. For example, if you search “anxiety” or “stress” in the Google search bar, you are likely going to see ads for stress relief medications in the future.

This cyber stalking only increases from there. Every time you make one of these queries, Google records it in your “web history,” along with everything you clicked on from that search. When you agree to Google’s terms of use, you also give Google permission to track whom you email, which messages in your inbox you reply to or open, keywords you frequently use, and which messages you delete, archive, or rate. When Gmail scans incoming emails to check for viruses or bugs, it also looks for keywords that can be used to bring certain ads your way.

However, Google claims that this practice doesn’t violate any privacy concerns because an actual human being is not doing the scanning. This raises the question: which is worse, a bored person skimming emails looking for repeated words or a highly programmed computer that analyzes each word, keeping track of the frequencies, and using them to increase ad revenues?

The fact that Google computers scan every email that goes through user’s inboxes is a concerning activity. Gmail’s emailing services should be a way for people to communicate with one another, not a means of making money for the company that facilitates the emailing.

While Google and Facebook’s ad targeting policies do currently have some restrictions that protect your privacy from outside businesses, the future of advertising for these companies may hold more invasive techniques. In 2008, the advertising company NebuAd pioneered a new system of “behavior targeting.” The company contracted six internet service providers, each with thousands of individual users and tracked every email, purchase, search and click for six months. Data was sent to NebuAd for analysis and use in marketing and advertising.

Put simply, this company was an invisible cyber stalker that used everything users did on the internet to make money. If it had not happened in cyberspace, the actions of the company would be similar to having someone follow you around for six months recording every store you go to, every sentence you say, every person you talk to, and everything you do in order to send you junk mail that might be of interest. Clearly, both circumstances are an invasion of privacy.

But now that internet programming has become so much more complicated and dangerous, massive companies like Facebook and Google could create similar systems and get permission to do so by slipping it into the terms and conditions that most people don’t read anyways. While it may seem that the ad targeting practices currently used by such companies should be more well-known and publicized, most users are unaware their information is being used in such ways. Even now, users even give their permission for these companies to use their information when they agree to the terms and conditions upon creating an account with either website. Most people consider these documents to be long, boring, legal, and unimportant for the average Joe.

But it is in the terms and conditions that Facebook and Google spell out their policies, and by absentmindedly clicking the “yes” box you claim you have read and understand them, and you give the companies permission to whatever they said in the document. So, if either company develops a more specialized system of ad targeting similar to that of NebuAd, they could easily slip the legalities into the terms and conditions. Users would still skim over or completely skip the terms and conditions, unintentionally giving Facebook and Google free reign to make billions of dollars from their personal information and actions.

Facebook and Google’s claims that ad targeting decreases the amount of irrelevant advertisements that pop up on the screen, and provides ads that are at least of interest to the user.

While this may be true, the means by which these companies send certain ads to certain users is what is so disconcerting. Would you rather have ads diabolically engineered to match your own personal interests, obtained through stealing private personal information, or ads that aren’t user specific and don’t arise due to use of your own information?

Now that Facebook is offering stock in their company, this issue is even more pertinent. Every day, millions of people log onto Facebook and unknowingly contribute to the company’s ad revenues. Everytime we add something on Facebook, the company’s computer database analyzes it to generate more money for the company. Shareholders will receive dividends based on the huge amounts of money that Facebook brings in through their ad targeting methods that violate our privacy. Your Facebook profile will be a source of income for all shareholders. Facebook will no longer be a fun social networking site, but a complex revenue generating machine that uses us to make money.