Study: Thousands of businesses just love handing over your info to Facebook
Mmm, Zuck up that data
The startlingly extent to which websites and brokers hand over details of people's habits to Facebook was revealed Wednesday.
A study by Consumer Reports and non-profit The Markup concluded that for the average lone Facebook user, 2,230 companies, and in some cases more than 7,000, will hand over that person's information to Facebook. We're told 709 volunteers took part in the study over three years, during which time 186,892 organizations passed data about them to the Meta-run empire.
Specifically, the study looked at server-to-server contact between Meta and data brokers and retailers. Online shops, data brokers, and the like can take a note of your digital activity – such as whether you just bought a monitor, spent an hour at the mall, or read an article – and pass that info to Meta, which can mine it for its own purposes. In return the broker or retailer can target not only you on Facebook with adverts specific to your needs, but also people similar to you: these businesses all know what you're interested in and what you ordered, and folks with kindred interests and demographics may be tempted by adverts for the same sort of stuff, or so the thinking goes.
“This type of tracking which occurs entirely outside of the user’s view is just so far outside of what people expect when they use the internet,” Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Markup.
“They don’t expect Meta to know what stores they walk into or what news articles they’re reading or every site they visit online.”
At the top of this list is a San Francisco-based data broker called LiveRamp, which we're told passed information regarding 96 percent of the study's participants to Meta. And in an interesting twist, it turns out Consumer Reports itself has a relationship with LiveRamp and another broker called Acxiom, which it did confess to: "Consumer Reports shares data with each of these companies in order to help support its mission."
The majority of the top info-passers were brokers – outfits that buy and sell netizens' data on an industrial scale – but individual retailers such as Home Depot (who is currently being sued in Canada over data sharing) and Amazon showed up on the top 10 list.
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Meta's own tracking practices have put it in a legal bind in Europe, and in 2022 the social network was criticized for taking American students' financial aid figures and using them to target adverts. There's also a pending US class action lawsuit against the mega-corp over its collection of of hospital data.
By working with data brokers, Meta gets a whole new level of information that helps it target people with ads tailored to their everyday lives. Say for instance you've looked up car insurance quotes recently. A data broker can pass that information to Meta and you can expect your Facebook ads to be well-stocked with insurance options.
When data is shared about you to Meta to specifically target you with ads, for example, it appears as though that information may include personally identifiable details, such as your email address, to enable that targeting. And if any of the shared info is anonymized, given the nature of the info, it may be possible to de-anonymize the data anyway.
"Sometimes the data point might be a device ID that doesn't directly identify the individual person," Matt Schwartz, policy analyst at Consumer Reports, who co-authored the report, told The Register. "In practice, a lot of this stuff is being tied to individuals who can be matched to other data points, like their location."
Facebook does have a "Download your Information" tool that lets users have some insight into which organizations handed over their data to Meta, though the study found that information limited in scope. In many cases, the names of companies supplying the data were obfuscated, with only 34 percent of them offering a clear link to their corporate website.
“We offer a number of transparency tools to help people understand the information that businesses choose to share with us, and manage how it’s used,” Meta spokesperson Emil Vazquez said. "As we cover in our terms, businesses are responsible for getting permission to share people’s information with companies like ours.”
The study recommends that the US Federal Trade Commission takes action on the issue by setting down solid privacy rules for businesses operating in the surveillance capitalism market, ensuring that only information that is needed to process a transaction is stored.
"Strong data minimization mandates in privacy laws are arguably the most important thing lawmakers can do to reinvigorate consumer privacy, because they would dramatically reduce the amount of data available for advertisers, data brokers, and others to collect," the report concluded.
The authors also called on Facebook to increase the transparency of its site so that people can find out who is passing over their information and reduce the amount of data being shared. Good luck with that. ®