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As the tentacles of Facebook's data spread, privacy questions resurface

Zach Miners | Oct. 7, 2014
A rebuilt advertising server makes use of Facebook user data across the wider Web.


An expansion of how Facebook's user data is employed for advertising purposes is prompting questions over privacy.

This week the firm began rolling out a rebuilt version of Atlas, an advertising server Facebook acquired last year from Microsoft. The technology lets partnered advertisers leverage Facebook members' data to deliver targeted ads to them on outside sites, particularly on mobile devices.

With the rollout, questions have sprung up over the privacy implications for users, and whether it constitutes a new level of intrusion on people's data.

Some experts answered with a resounding "yes." "This expands the surveillance economy into ever more important and intimate aspects of a person's life," particularly when it comes to cross-device targeting on mobile, said Neil Richards, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies digital privacy.

The concept of ads following you around the Internet is not new. People's browsing activity already factors into the ads they see on Facebook. But at the same time, Facebook data is being put to greater use for the purpose of targeting ads on sites far beyond Facebook. That could make some users uncomfortable.

"It's an expansion of Facebook data to the rest of the Web," said Adi Kamdar, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation specializing in consumer privacy issues.

The knowledge that more highly targeted ads will be coming courtesy of Facebook, beyond the social networking site, may spark some to re-evaluate their relationship with the site.

"It pisses me off and makes me unsettled," said one Facebook member, after learning of Atlas. But she stopped short of saying she would quit the site. "I just hate how Facebook has become the main everything, the main communicator of what's going on with my friends," she said.

Concerns like those are part of the reason why ad-less alternative sites like Ello have sprung up.

Atlas also lets businesses connect people's real-world behavior with their activities online. A clothing retailer could use the email addresses gathered from shoppers in a store to deliver an ad to those people who are also Facebook users and on a site or mobile app that serves ads by Atlas. The advertiser can narrow it down further to reach, say, female Facebook users between the ages of 30 and 40 living in Atlanta.

The technology lets advertisers target ads to people across desktop and mobile, and helps Facebook compete against Google by leveraging Facebook's user data across the wider Web.

"Because we may serve advertisements on many different websites, we are able to compile information over time about where you, or others who are using your device(s), saw and/or clicked on the advertisements we display," Atlas says in its privacy policy. Omnicom, a global advertising agency, is the first agency signed up for Atlas, as are advertisers on Instagram.


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