Aleksandra Korolova has turned off Facebook’s access to her location in every way that she can. She has turned off location history in the Facebook app and told her iPhone that she “Never” wants the app to get her location. She doesn’t “check-in” to places and doesn’t list her current city on her profile.
Despite all this, she constantly sees location-based ads on Facebook. She sees ads targeted at “people who live near Santa Monica” (where she lives) and at “people who live or were recently near Los Angeles” (where she works as an assistant professor at the University of Southern California). When she traveled to Glacier National Park, she saw an ad for activities in Montana, and when she went on a work trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, she saw an ad for a ceramics school there.
Facebook was continuing to track Korolova’s location for ads despite her signaling in all the ways that she could that she didn’t want Facebook doing that.
This was especially perturbing for Korolova, as she recounts on Medium, because she has studied the privacy harms that come from Facebook advertising, including how it could be previously used to gather data about an individual’s likes, estimated income and interests (for which she and her co-author Irfan Faizullabhoy got a $2,000 bug bounty from Facebook), and how it can currently be used to target ads at a single house or building, if, say, an anti-choice group wanted to target women at a Planned Parenthood with an ad for baby clothes.
Korolova thought Facebook must be getting her location information from the IP addresses she used to log in from, which Facebook says it collects for security purposes. (It wouldn’t be the first time Facebook used information gathered for security purposes for advertising ones; advertisers can target Facebook users with the phone number they provided for two-factor protection of their account.) As the New York Times recently reported, lots of apps are tracking users’ movements with surprising granularity. The Times suggested turning off location services in your phone’s privacy settings to stop the tracking, but even then the apps can still get location information, by looking at the wifi network you use or your IP address.
When asked about this, Facebook said that’s exactly what it’s doing and that it considers this a completely normal thing to do and that users should know this will happen if they closely read various Facebook websites.
“Facebook does not use WiFi data to determine your location for ads if you have Location Services turned off,” said a Facebook spokesperson by email. “We do use IP and other information such as check-ins and current city from your profile. We explain this to people, including in our Privacy Basics site and on the About Facebook Ads site.”
On Privacy Basics, Facebook gives advice for “how to manage your privacy” with regards to location but says that regardless of what you do, Facebook can still “understand your location using things like… information about your Internet connection.” This is reiterated on the “About Facebook Ads” site that says that ads might be based on your location which is garnered from “where you connect to the Internet” among other things.
Strangely, back in 2014, Facebook told businesses in a blog post that “people have control over the recent location information they share with Facebook and will only see ads based on their recent location if location services are enabled on their phone.” Apparently, that policy has changed. (Facebook said it would update this old post.)
Hey, maybe this is to be expected. You need an IP address to use the internet and, by the nature of how the internet works, you reveal it to an app or a website when you use them (though you can hide your IP address by using one provided by the Tor browser or a VPN). There are various companies that specialize in mapping the locations of IP addresses, and while it can sometimes be wildly inaccurate, an IP address will give you a rough approximation of your whereabouts, such as the state, city or zip code you are currently in. Many websites use IP address-derived location to personalize their offerings, and many advertisers use it to show targeted online ads. It means showing you ads for restaurants in San Francisco if you live there instead of ads for restaurants in New York. In that context, Facebook using this information to do the same thing is not terribly unusual.
“There is no way for people to opt out of using location for ads entirely,” said a Facebook spokesperson by email. “We use city and zip level location which we collect from IP addresses and other information such as check-ins and current city from your profile to ensure we are providing people with a good service—from ensuring they see Facebook in the right language, to making sure that they are shown nearby events and ads for businesses that are local to them.”
The question is whether Facebook should be held to a higher standard given its one-on-one relationship with its users. Should users be able to tell Facebook, ‘Hey, I don’t want you tracking my location for ad purposes’? And then should Facebook not let advertisers target those people based on their locations? Kolokova thinks that should be the case.
“The locations that a person visits and lives in reveal a great deal about them,” she writes on Medium. “Their surreptitious collection and use in ad targeting can pave the way to ads that are harmful, target people when they are vulnerable or enable harassment and discrimination.”
At this point, Facebook disagrees. It feels IP address is a rough approximation of location that is forgivable to use. To avoid this, you could stop using the Facebook app on your phone (where IP addresses tend to be more precisely mapped) or use a VPN when you log into Facebook. Or, of course, there’s always the option to quit Facebook altogether.