A woman lives in Santa Monica, works in Los Angeles, and vacations at a national park in Montana. She tells Facebook none of this, and yet the social media platform manages to target hyper-specific ads toward her based on these locations.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the beginning of a joke, but a real-life story that’s no doubt happening all around the world. Aleksandra Korolova thought she had been diligent in turning off any tracking features: she told her iPhone that she “never” wants the app to have her location; she avoided “checking in” to places; she didn’t list her city or address on her profile; she turned off location history in the Facebook app.
Location, location, location
The reason Facebook still knew her location? Her IP address. IP stands for “internet protocol,” and “address” refers to a unique number that gets linked to all your online activity. It acts like a return address on an envelope you mail out (except unlike snail mail, this happens in a fraction of a second).
The IP address is assigned to your home internet router, or your cellphone, and these addresses are mapped to jurisdictions such as Toronto, or Santa Monica in the case of Korolova.
Many consider the IP to be public information, like a postal code. But your phone isn’t giving this info to Facebook. Facebook can read the IP address on its own – and it’s more than happy to do so despite constantly reassuring users how much it values their privacy.
Just checking in
People are learning to withhold more data these days – and that’s a good thing! – but millions of Facebook users around the world share their locations willingly. Have you ever “checked in” at a restaurant, a movie, an airport? Facebook is actively harnessing this information to use it in ways you can’t even predict.
Leave the prediction up to Facebook…
Facebook is pretty sure it can figure out where you’re going next based on your past checkins, the locations of other users, and the heap of information you and other users have provided for free.
On Dec. 6, 2018, Facebook filed a patent for its new location-prediction feature “Offline Trajectories.” How does it work? Say, for example, you’re 32 years old, you’re female, you live and work in Halifax, and you tend to the gym after your shift. Facebook knows you’ll go to Starbucks right after the gym – because you have before, and others in your demographic do too – and will send Starbucks ads your way. It doesn’t need you to be online; it instead uses the mountains of data you and other users have provided to create scarily accurate profiles of everyone in your demographic.
What can you do?
Get it off your phone! Let’s face it – it’s tough to kick the Facebook habit. But you can at least make yourself harder to track. Get the Facebook app, and don’t use it on your phone, because that information is precisely targeted to you. Add another layer of protection: use a virtual private network (VPN) service to further obscure your location.
Bonus points: Talk you your members of parliament about the abuse of your privacy. Until it’s an issue for voters, it’s not an issue for government, and no positive change will occur.
Remember, Facebook is an advertising platform – they're not in the business of protecting your privacy.