Last week, I ran an ad on Facebook that was targeted at a computer science professor named Alan Mislove. Mislove studies how privacy works on social networks and had a theory that Facebook is letting advertisers reach users with contact information collected in surprising ways. I was helping him test the theory by targeting him in a way Facebook had previously told me wouldn’t work. I directed the ad to display to a Facebook account connected to the landline number for Alan Mislove’s office, a number Mislove has never provided to Facebook. He saw the ad within hours.
One of the many ways that ads get in front of your eyeballs on Facebook and Instagram is that the social networking giant lets an advertiser upload a list of phone numbers or email addresses it has on file; it will then put an ad in front of accounts associated with that contact information. A clothing retailer can put an ad for a dress in the Instagram feeds of women who have purchased from them before, a politician can place Facebook ads in front of anyone on his mailing list, or a casino can offer deals to the email addresses of people suspected of having a gambling addiction. Facebook calls this a “custom audience.”
You might assume that you could go to your Facebook profile and look at your “contact and basic info” page to see what email addresses and phone numbers are associated with your account, and thus what advertisers can use to target you. But as is so often the case with this highly efficient data-miner posing as a way to keep in contact with your friends, it’s going about it in a less transparent and more invasive way.
Facebook is not content to use the contact information you willingly put into your Facebook profile for advertising. It is also using contact information you handed over for security purposes and contact information you didn’t hand over at all, but that was collected from other people’s contact books, a hidden layer of details Facebook has about you that I’ve come to call “shadow contact information.”
Giridhari Venkatadri, Piotr Sapiezynski, and Alan Mislove of Northeastern University, along with Elena Lucherini of Princeton University, did a series of tests that involved handing contact information over to Facebook for a group of test accounts in different ways and then seeing whether that information could be used by an advertiser.
They found that when a user gives Facebook a phone number for two-factor authentication or in order to receive alerts about new log-ins to a user’s account, that phone number became targetable by an advertiser within a couple of weeks. So users who want their accounts to be more secure are forced to make a privacy trade-off and allow advertisers to more easily find them on the social network.
The researchers also found that if User A, whom we’ll call Anna, shares her contacts with Facebook, including a previously unknown phone number for User B, whom we’ll call Ben, advertisers will be able to target Ben with an ad using that phone number, which I call “shadow contact information,” about a month later.
“I think that many users don’t fully understand how ad targeting works today: that advertisers can literally specify exactly which users should see their ads by uploading the users’ email addresses, phone numbers, names+dates of birth, etc,” said Mislove. “In describing this work to colleagues, many computer scientists were surprised by this, and were even more surprised to learn that not only Facebook, but also Google, Pinterest, and Twitter all offer related services. Thus, we think there is a significant need to educate users about how exactly targeted advertising on such platforms works today.”