Was Facebook listening to my kitchen conversation?


809 days ago

Around this time last year, my husband and I had just returned from Istanbul in Turkey. Thinking back on our travels, it also reminded me of an incident that occurred when my husband and I had started discussing potential holiday destinations. I clearly remember us standing in the kitchen and talking about Istanbul, as well as Rome, as potential destinations for our October 2017 getaway. The next morning when I hopped onto my Facebook feed I was met with Airbnb ads for Istanbul, Rome and Cape Town!

Having a background as a privacy lawyer, I was already well aware that information sources from various internet activities (even while logged off of Facebook) get pooled together to tailor your ad feed. However, at this point I, personally, had done zero internet research on these destinations, and the only time this was discussed was in the kitchen the night before… For a second I was horrified, was Facebook actually listening to my private conversation?! This can’t be right.

As I thought about it further, I pieced together the puzzle. Facebook has my location data, as well as my husband’s location data, so obviously, they know that we live together as our IP addresses meet up every night (and perhaps the subtle hint of being listed as married to each other on our relationship status on Facebook). Trawling through Facebook’s terms regarding what information it uses when tailoring ads it becomes clearer:

  • We use your location-related information – such as your current location, where you live, people near you – to provide, personalise and improve our Products, including ads, for you and others

  • Location-related information can be based on things such as precise device location (if you’ve allowed us to collect it), IP address and information from your and others’ use of Facebook Products

  • We use the information we have about you – including information about your connections – to select and personalise ads, offers and sponsored content that we show you

So - the ads that popped up on my Facebook feed were unrelated to any internet searches or activities I had performed, but rather based on my husband’s search history!! (Good luck planning a surprise holiday!). Seems like a good advertising plan, husband does initial holiday search, wife gets to see the specials and closes the deal…?

In addition to your location information, here are some other types of information used by Facebook when tailoring your ads:

  • your interests and the content you view

  • the actions you take and features you use

  • your connections, people and accounts you interact with

  • information gathered from across your devices are combined (ie. computers, phones, smart TVs, other web-connected devices)

  • Your current location and places you like to go to

  • Your GPS location, IP address, cookie data, as well as information about any Bluetooth signals, nearby Wifi access points, beacons and mobile phone masts

  • the businesses and people that are near you

  • information collected about your activity outside of Facebook from third-party partners (such as advertisers, app developers and publishers), including device information, websites you visit, purchases you make, ads you see and how you use the third-party’s services (this information is collected even if you do not have a Facebook account and includes offline activities). For example, a game developer could share what games you play, and a retailer could share what in-store purchases you made.

Facebook also allows you to view and personalise your ad preferences – lo and behold (amongst some other interesting, but accurate, findings) my ad preferences state that I’m interested in “adventure travel”, Airbnb has me listed on their “contact list”, my relationship status is “married”, and my “about me” categories include “frequent travellers”.

Go to this link to check out your ad preferences and let us know if you find anything interesting?

Nerushka is an emerging technology law specialist, legal technology innovator and international speaker. She is the founder of the L.I.T.T. Institute, a company aimed at catalyzing change in the legal industry and creating lawyers of the future. She is a consultant trainer at the Blockchain Academy where she created a course on the legal implications of blockchain and cryptocurrency. She is also a co-chair of the Johannesburg chapter of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (the largest association of privacy professionals in the world).

Nerushka is regularly quoted in media on technology and privacy-related topics, and was recently listed on CryptoCoin.News as one of 20 African women to watch in Blockchain and Crypto. She has a background as a technology & privacy lawyer for an international law firm and has work experience in London and Melbourne. She is involved in training and advising startups and corporates on emerging tech law issues, as well as the awareness and upskilling of lawyers about the future of law.

To find out more visit LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and nerushkabowan.com.

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