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Advertising on Facebook can be directed at a single person

An investigation carried out by scientists from the Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) and the Technological University of Graz (Austria) shows that a advertising campaign on Facebook can target a specific person based on only in four unique interests that the social network assigns to said user.

The personalization of advertising online based on our searches and preferences is not something new, because it has been developing for many years. However, this new study, recently presented at the scientific congress ACM Internet Measurement Conference , highlights that it is possible to customize and send an advertisement to one person exclusively, which could carry a potential privacy problem.

“It allows hyperpersonalized announcements that can have a greater effect on the user who receives them,” explains Ángel Cuevas, from the UC3M Department of Telematics Engineering.

The ability to segment in such a specific way is called by the researchers as ‘nanotargeting’ and, on a practical level, they have shown that it is feasible to do it on Facebook at practically zero cost

This issue exposes users to new risks arising from the combination of interests. In this framework, there are two types of data: those that directly reveal the identity of a person (such as ID, telephone or email), in which the consent of the person is necessary for companies to use them. Second, the data that cannot be attributed to a specific user, such as their interests, gender or age. What happens if we can identify a person thanks to Facebook and without that authorization, combining only interests? The researchers wonder.

From a theoretical point of view, the team has shown that very little information about a user, only four rare and specific interests, makes him unique in a base with billions of users. There were previous studies that pointed this out, but they worked with much smaller user bases of around a million users.

This ability to segment in such a specific way is called by researchers as nanotargeting and on a practical level they have shown that it is feasible to do it on Facebook at practically zero cost. In other words, it is possible to reach a single user among the 2,800 million active profiles that this social network has approximately.

Combination of interests

To do this, the researchers carried out an experiment: they designed 21 advertising campaigns that sought to reach three authors of the work. “On the one hand, we are the advertiser on Facebook and, on the other, the ad is directed at each one of us. We built a model to see how many interests we would need to reach a single person with high probability and then we validate it with the campaigns ”, explains José González Cabañas, another of the UC3M authors.

“When combining five random interests, the ad did not reach the chosen user. However, the probability of success increased as the number of interests rose to seven or nine and we saw that in the real experiment with 20 and 22 interests, success was guaranteed, but really only needed four when it comes to very rare and specific interests ”.

Advertising on Facebook can be directed at a single person

The advertising platform should guarantee that the advertisement can reach a group of at least 1000 users, for example, to protect the privacy of an individual

Ángel Cuevas, UC3M researcher

Advertising on Facebook can be directed at a single person

From a marketing point of view, this option could be of great value for companies that want to carry out highly personalized customer campaigns.

However, from the perspective of user protection , “the advertising platform should guarantee that, according to the parameters defined by the advertiser and the platform’s estimates, the ad can to reach a group comprised of at least 1,000 users, for example, to protect an individual’s privacy and avoid nanotargeting ”, concludes Ángel Cuevas.

Rights: Creative Commons.

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