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Facebook Updates Advertising Interface in Response to Data Scandal

5 MINUTE READ | April 3, 2018

Facebook Updates Advertising Interface in Response to Data Scandal

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Abby Long

Abby Long is the Senior Managing Editor at PMG.

This has been a rough past few weeks for Facebook.

We expect Facebook to take several actions to address not just recent data privacy issues, but forthcoming regulation in the U.S. and E.U. PMG will keep clients apprised and provide our viewpoints on the impact of those changes.

With the developments surrounding the Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group Facebook banning, and the recent (misleading) news on call and SMS history, Facebook has acted quickly to remove potential user privacy vulnerabilities from the advertising interface. This flurry of changes was the result of Facebook expanding its Bug Bounty Program and the attempt to crack down on platform abuse and potential security concerns. Among the most significant changes were the removal of an identity-based ad filter and audience reach estimate for Custom Audiences.

A Custom Audience from a customer (CRM) list is a type of audience an advertiser can create made up of an advertiser’s existing customers. These audiences are developed on a user-level, using PII information (email, name, address, phone number, etc.) and primarily utilized by advertisers to better optimize advertising dollars to be spent more efficiently. Custom Audiences are different than Facebook Curated-Audiences (moms, dads, working professionals in Detroit, etc.)  because it’s first-party data.

For client accounts that may have utilized parts of these tools with PMG, transition plans and updated strategies were communicated and implemented earlier this week.

Facebook recently removed an ad filter that enabled advertisers to create campaigns targeting people based on their relationship preferences. Because the filter was based on information originating from the “interested in” specification on a person’s Facebook profile, it was technically possible for advertisers to build campaigns around people’s sexual orientation.

The removal of this ad targeting filter prevents advertisers from specifically targeting the LGBTQ+ community by using the “interested in” detail.

Later that day, Facebook also reported that it will stop showing audience reach estimates in any campaign using Custom Audience targeting. Reach estimates are used to show how widely ads may be seen across a platform based on the settings and targeting specifics an advertiser has selected. Reach estimates are useful to advertisers because they give an approximation on how many people an ad can reach. Furthermore, reach estimates can be used to define if enough budget is being allocated to a campaign or if the campaign will scale. This feature removal took place after a Northeastern University research team reported a potential privacy vulnerability within the feature through the Bug Bounty Program.

In short, this feature could infer certain attributes of a person included in an uploaded Custom Audience list of PII (emails, addresses, etc.) by using the estimated reach reporting available in the interface. Because the rounding threshold exists for those estimates, an advertiser could upload a list of emails right on the rounding threshold, then add one person’s information to the list.

If the reach estimates were to change based on that person’s information, the advertiser could presume that that specific person has a certain attribute. In the same way, if the estimate didn’t change, the advertiser could infer that person does not have that specific attribute.

With over 1,200 targeting attributes available in the Facebook advertising interface, a great deal could be inferred about a potentially added person to the Custom Audience. Once Facebook was alerted to the issue, the reach estimate feature was quickly removed as the Facebook team continues to investigate if the tool was ever used by an advertiser to infer information about a specific person.

In the meantime and until a fix can be built, Potential Reach (reach estimate) numbers are not available for any campaign set up that uses Custom Audiences, nor the ability to build lookalike audiences from an uploaded list.

As highlighted earlier this year, local news will now be prioritized so people “can see topics that have a direct impact on their community and discover what’s happening in their local area.” As of this week, Facebook has expanded that update to people in all countries and languages.

This update will better support local journalists and publishers who cover nearby cities to reach those niche audiences. Beyond the hyperfocus on local content, Facebook also communicated in the announcement that their teams are working to prioritize high-quality news in the News Feed, “including news from sources that are broadly trusted, informative and relevant to local communities.”

In addition to the 2018 goals, Facebook’s VP and Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan, and VP and Deputy General Counsel, Ashlie Beringer, specified more explicitly in a post on Wednesday that the social platform would be “cracking down on abuse of the Facebook platform, strengthening [their] policies, and making it easier for people to revoke apps’ ability to use [people’s] data.” By working towards EU GDPR compliance and in response to the data scandal, Facebook released a new privacy shortcuts menu that makes it easier for people to find and control their data.


Source: Facebook. A comparison of the old settings menu (left) and new settings menu (right).

To end the announcement, Facebook hinted at proposing updates to Facebook’s terms of service and data policy to specify what data Facebook collects about people, how they use it and how people can better manage their personal data.

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While Facebook continues to give people more power over their experience and prep for EU GDPR, we anticipate more updates and shifts to be coming soon. As articulated by Mark Zuckerberg’s in his 2018 personal challenge, the platform is doing more to focus on transparency, Facebook’s security and finding ways to optimize the platform experience to ensure that time spent on Facebook is well spent. We’ll continue to monitor for advertising feature updates on the Facebook platform and adjust client strategies as necessary.