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Facebook Has Data From Thousands Of Companies For Every User, Study Finds

A study of 709 Facebook users showed that they are tracked, on average, by 2,230 businesses. An extreme example had its data collected and uploaded to the social network by nearly 48,000 different companies. In addition, one company was on the list of 96% of volunteers, more than 90,000 had only one person among the participants as a target audience, and more than 7,000 use random characters to avoid identifying themselves.

The survey was conducted by Consumer Reports, with help from the investigative website The Markup, which recruited the volunteers. They used Facebook’s own tool, downloaded their personal information from the past three years, and passed it on to researchers.

In all, 186,892 companies were included in the records of the 709 volunteers. On average, each of the files had information collected by 2,230 companies. In some cases, this number exceeded 7,000. One of them had nearly 48,000 companies on the list. The report says it was likely someone with “unusual app use” or a “candidate with a lot of appeal for targeted advertising.”

The authors of the study caution that because the user group was self-selected and not demographically adjusted, it is not a sample of the U.S. population.

Ad micro-targeting
Consumer Reports also points out that 96,000 (or 52%) of the companies listed in the study had only one of the 709 volunteers as a “target” for their advertisements. In other words, they probably weren’t targeting ads to large demographics, but to people with a very specific profile.

For the researchers, this shows that even small businesses, with little money for marketing, are able to use Meta’s ad platform.

“Meta provides small businesses with easy implementations of ad technologies with advanced surveillance,” the report reads. Consumer Reports explains that all you have to do is set a budget, give customers personal information (such as email addresses), and report on shopping behavior. Meta’s service does the rest.

Not all companies identify themselves
Among the 709 participants, one company was present among the information providers of 96% of them: the data broker LiveRamp. Data brokers are companies that specialize in collecting personal or corporate data.

The top 10 most frequent companies have other names of the type, such as Acxiom and Experian Marketing Services. The list also features retailers Amazon and The Home Depot.

On the other end, there are about 7,000 companies using random combinations of characters, such as “Bm 5 100tkqc nlm,” and many others using generic names, such as “Viking.” This prevents them from being identified.

The Consumer Reports report also includes some policy proposals to improve privacy, such as requiring companies to adopt “data minimization” strategies, collecting only what is necessary, and improving data transparency.

At the Markup, Meta defended its practices. “We offer a number of transparency tools so that people can understand the information that companies choose to share with us, as well as manage how that information is used,” a spokesperson said.

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