Facebook & Online Shadow Profiles

Digital products and services are exchanged daily; however, an often unknown commodity being traded online everyday is data. Data about a user’s shopping habits, frequently visited websites, recent searches, etc. all contribute to building a profile that can then be targeted by online advertising. 

Collection of this data has sparked a call for increased legislation on data protection and privacy protection. In recent years, we’ve even seen the enactment of the European Union’s (EU) ePrivacy Directive from 2003, EU General Data Protection Regulation from 2018 and the California Consumer Privacy Act from 2020 in an attempt to mitigate the amount of online tracking. Yet, the question still remains, how much data is being collected? Who is being tracked? Can users protect themselves if desired? Who collects this data and how?

Aguiar et. al (2022) analyze the social media platform, Facebook, which belongs to the parentcompany Meta, and its ability to track both users’ and non-users’ online behavior outside the platform. Using their engagement button, which is scattered across third-party websites, Facebook can track one’s online behavior and collect their data to create “shadow profiles”, even when a user does not interact with Facebook’s engagement button on the third party website. Examples of this engagement button are Facebook’s “like” and “share” features.

A “shadow profile” is a composition of a user’s online behavior and habits that can be connected to existing Facebook profiles or future ones for users who do not yet have a profile on the platform. Shadow profiles additionally assist targeted advertisements.

Using “the entire browsing history of about 5,000 representative U.S. internet users in 2016” and with a group of participants who “are incentivized to install a software that records all web browsing activity”, Aguiar et. al (2022) investigagate the following questions: 

  1. “What is the share of individuals’ browsing activity that can be tracked by Facebook?” 
  2. “How do these shares vary between individuals who are users of Facebook and those who are not?”
  3. “How do these differences vary across demographic groups?”
  4. “Does Facebook’s ability to track user behavior vary across different types of websites?”

Some of their results include that Facebook’s technology can be found on 52% of websites visited and that Facebook is able to “track 55% of the websites visited by Facebook-users and 44% by non-Facebook users”.

Citation:

Luis Aguiar & Christian Peukert & Maximilian Schäfer & Hannes Ullrich, 2022. “Facebook Shadow Profiles,” Discussion Papers of DIW Berlin 1998, DIW Berlin, German Institute for Economic Research.