Facebook Knows What You’re Doing, Even Offline

Joanna Stern had a fascinating, and helpful, article in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The article took a look at how much Facebook knows about you, and can then use that knowledge to push targeted ads to you on while you are online.

One story she told was particularly intriguing. Most of us have experienced the situation where we are searching for something on the web, let’s say juggling clubs. Then magically, the next time you log into Facebook, you see ads for juggling clubs. I find that pretty amazing, and it doesn’t really bother me to get such ads.

But Joanna tells the story of how an ad for Sudafed popped up in Facebook, despite never searching for Sudafed online. Here’s the story in her words:

The story of how that Sudafed ad got to me begins at Walgreens. As I bought tissues and Afrin, I keyed in my phone number so I could get loyalty points.

Information about the contents of my shopping bag began to spread. A third-party data collector—likely Nielsen-Catalina Solutions—added it to the purchase history it acquires from Walgreens.

Johnson & Johnson, maker of Sudafed, paid the data broker for that information. With the use of Facebook’s tools, the information from my loyalty card—email, phone number, etc.—was matched with my Facebook account. (Data brokers run personal information through an algorithm before uploading so it’s not identifiable, Facebook says, but it still can be matched with Facebook account information.)

Then via Facebook, Johnson & Johnson decided to target adults ages 25 to 54 who bought Sudafed or a competing brand. In other words, me.

That’s pretty amazing, at least tome it is.

What’s really nice abou the WSJ article is that after presenitng a potential privacy/security issue, Joann then provides a solution.

Here’s a solution to this tye of problem, again in Joann’s words:

For starters, either don’t use loyalty cards, or register them to an email address or phone number you don’t use.

Facebook works directly with six data brokers, all of which allow you to opt out from their sharing of your personal data, everything from your email to your purchase history.

Of course, it isn’t  easy. You need to go to each broker website and fill out your form with, yes, your personal information.

The article presents a variety of examples as to how Facebook is gathering your data, and then tips on what you can do minimize such data collection, or simply avoid it all.

Joann breaks the examples down into the following caregories:

  • What You’ve Bought
  • Where You’ve Been
  • Which Apps You’re Using
  • What You’ve Clicked or Tapped

I find the Sudafed example incredible, both from a technical perspective and from a marketing perspective.

And as noted earlier, I really don’t mind those kind of ads. I’d rather get targeted ads that are based on what I like, and not just a bunch of generic, untargeted ads.

So yes, you should be concerned about privacy and Johnson


Oops, must have nodded off there again; no idea why Johnson is at the end of the previous sentence. Anyway, this is what I meant to say:

Yes, you should be concerned about privacy and safety issues, but not in an extreme way that limits our life enjoyment.

And here’s an example I can share from yesterday to see this in action.

We were busy streaming our local news from Philly yesterday so that we could learn more about the snowstorm that was hitting the city while we just relaxed in our London flat.

I took a picture of the live news feed, and if you look to the right of the picture (it’s mostly cutoff) you will see several ads for “afternoon tea” as a result of my having searched for afternoon teas the previous day.

That’s pretty cool technology to be able to target ads like that, and I can live with it. If it bothers me, I can try one of Joanna’s solutions, or I can simply stop using technology, which isn’t really an option.

So bottom line, accept those targeted ads for what they are, an attempt to assist you with a purchase that in one way or another, you’ve expressed an interest in.

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