Facebook launched a transparency tool this week that will give people a little more information about how its targeted ads work (good!). Now you can see more details about why you’re seeing an ad in your feed, how it is linked to an ad agency or data broker, and how to opt out of interest-based ad campaigns run by businesses that have your information. The bad news is that looking at it may end up just making you feel worse about how your data is passed around by third-party data brokers — credit reporting bureaus and marketing agencies — like Halloween candy.
Previously, Facebook provided very limited information about why ads appear in your feed (“You are an existing customer” or “H&M wants to reach women ages 16 and older who live in the United States”). It didn’t really explain that ad targeting is far more sophisticated than simply identifying age and location.
BuzzFeed News recently reported on Facebook’s baffling “Advertisers who uploaded a contact list with your info” page (now found under Settings > Account Settings > Ads > Advertisers and Businesses) — a list of brands that have either collected your data or purchased it from someone else. These lists often include seemingly random local businesses from around the country with whom you have never interacted (think a car dealership in a state you have never set foot in).
It turns out that these local businesses acquired your personal information from data brokers that make a business of collecting and reselling it. Consumers know little about how their information is traded, and digital privacy and data collection has become a growing area of interest among federal and state regulators. Now Facebook said it will show when an advertiser used a data broker or ad agency to add you to a customer list. (TechCrunch had reported earlier this year that this feature was in the works.)
Starting this week, and rolling out to all users soon, if you view your Facebook Ad Preferences, you’ll see a list of companies under “Businesses who have uploaded and shared a list with your info.” This is the first time Facebook is actually showing you which marketing companies and data brokers have your data. And on any specific ad in your timeline, if you click on the three dots in the upper-right corner, you’ll see the company that uploaded you to its list.
It may surprise you just how many of these there are. I counted 79 (!!!) of these data brokers and marketing agencies on my list — businesses I had never heard of: Applied Analytics, BrandBastion, Strike Social, and Camelot Strategic Marketing & Media.
“I think it is a good evolution of our transparency tools, and what we’re doing is listening to people’s feedback,” Rob Leathern, director of product management at Facebook, told BuzzFeed News. “We heard that even though we’d made some improvements over the last year, the tools are somewhat difficult to navigate and not as comprehensive as they’d like.”
More on how data brokers work
Third-party data brokers like Equifax (a credit reporting bureau) have massive lists of anonymized customer data that they collect from all sorts of places. Basically, if you exist online and have ever bought anything — even at a brick-and-mortar store — a data broker probably has enough information about you to deliver a targeted advertisement. Sorry, the horse is long out of the barn on this one; there’s pretty much nothing you can do.
Data brokers help marketers deliver their ads to the right people by turning the data they collect into Custom Audiences — a group of people likely to be the right target for the ads. Previously, Facebook partnered with some major data brokers to create an ad tool called Partner Categories. For example, a car dealership trying to reach people on Facebook could select the platform’s Partner Category for, say, “Nissan shoppers” to target possible customers.
But after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook reduced the amount of third-party data it offered itself and killed off Partner Categories. But data brokers could still peddle their juicy Custom Audience lists to anyone interested in using them to advertise on Facebook. (Reminder: This data is anonymized, and data brokers aren’t just handing over a big spreadsheet of email addresses to their clients.) Although Facebook showed its users the “Advertisers who use a list” from these data brokers, the way the information was provided ended up being frustratingly confusing and incomplete.
The update that Facebook rolled out today makes it clear which brands have actually advertised to you and which brokers have uploaded a list with your info. (This means you’ll now see the brokers listed, rather than a confusing, long list of all their clients, including local car dealers and Realtors, like before.) More importantly, it makes it a little bit easier to opt out of ad campaigns targeted to lists that you’re on. If you tap into each agency name, you may find a “privacy option” that will direct you to an opt-out page on that particular company’s site. The bad news is that not all agencies have a privacy option integrated into Facebook or an easy-to-find opt-out page. (Navigating Facebook’s menus is a lot of legwork, but there’s also a way to bulk opt out through a site by the Digital Advertising Alliance.)
Facebook said it’s working to improve its ad-transparency features. “I don’t think we’re done by any means, and we’re going to continue to improve,” Leathern told BuzzFeed News.
Over the past year, user trust in Facebook has eroded for a number of reasons — data breaches, the mishandling of our data, etc. The company’s uncannily accurate ad targeting has only raised more suspicions about how much information Facebook is gathering and with whom it might be sharing it. (Consider the enduring urban legend that Instagram is listening to your conversations to target ads.) Facebook is working to temper this perception with moves like the one it announced today, but for the average human, there’s still a profound lack of understanding of the extent of the company’s symbiotic relationship with the advertising world. Allowing us to opt out of advertising campaigns by taking a deep dive into our Ad Preferences settings is unlikely to dramatically change this, and it will require a little legwork — but hey, it’s a start.
Disclosure: BuzzFeed collects data on its audience to deliver ads. The data it shares with advertisers is aggregated and anonymous and is not specific to individuals.