Researchers show Facebook’s advertising tools can target a single user

A new research paper by a team of academics and computer scientists from Spain and Austria has shown that it is possible to use Facebook’s targeting tools to serve an ad exclusively to a single individual if you know enough about the interests that the Facebook platform attributes to them. TechCrunch Reports: The document – titled “Unique on Facebook: Formulation and Evidence of (Nano) Targeting of Individual Users with Non-PII Data” – describes a “data-driven model” that defines a metric showing the likelihood that a Facebook user can be uniquely identified according to the interests attached to it by the advertising platform. The researchers show that they were able to use Facebook’s Custom Audience Tool to target a number of ads so that each ad only reached one intended Facebook user.

The research raises new questions about the potentially dangerous uses of Facebook’s ad targeting tools and, more broadly, the legality of the tech giant’s personal data empire given that the information it collects about people can be used to uniquely identify individuals, selecting them from the crowd of others on its platform, even based on their interests. The results could increase pressure on lawmakers to ban or phase out behavioral advertising – which has been under attack for years, fearing it poses an assortment of individual and societal harms. And, at least, the document seems likely to spark calls for strong checks and balances on how these invasive tools can be used. The results also underline the importance of independent research capable of interrogating algorithmic adtech – and should increase pressure on platforms not to close researchers’ access.