Facebook is a social network, but it doesn’t make money by connecting you to your friends and family. It makes money by showing you ads, and advertisers pay more for highly targeted ads. You might think you’ve blocked Facebook from tracking you, but computer science professor Aleksandra Korolova from the University of Southern California points out that you’re probably wrong. That’s not necessarily your fault, though. Facebook’s convoluted privacy controls make it hard to know what’s going on.
Most people happily use Facebook without ever bothering to look at their privacy controls, which is what Mark Zuckerberg wants. With every setting enabled, Facebook can even tell what stores you visit. Some particularly savvy users might have gone into the settings and disabled Facebook’s Location History feature. That’s what lets the site build a profile of where you are to target more effective ads. On the mobile side, someone might even block the location permission for the Facebook app, which is possible on both Android and iOS.
According to Korolova, that’s not enough. Even with those settings disabled, she recounts how she often sees Facebook ads based on her location even after turning off Facebook’s location access features. That’s the sort of thing she’d notice, as someone who has researched Facebook’s advertising practices in the past. You might be able to guess what’s happening here — it’s your IP address.
Facebook is a site on the internet, and that means it has to know your IP address in order to send you data. It’s the same for every website you’ve ever visited. That’s all perfectly valid, and it can even help Facebook detect if someone is trying to break into your account. Using it for ad targeting even when you’ve told Facebook you want no part of that is disingenuous at the very least.
Facebook admits to doing this and says users should expect it’s happening. But do they? Facebook’s messaging on this point has been unclear. In a 2014 blog post, it said that users only see location-based ads if they enable location services. An IP address doesn’t give you street-level location data like GPS or Wi-Fi scanning, but it can get you within a few miles of where someone lives and works, or even where they go on vacation.
With Facebook’s ongoing privacy and security issues, it’s reasonable to reevaluate the data the company gets from you. Facebook isn’t likely to stop using your IP address for ads, so running a VPN might be your only choice. Just not Facebook’s VPN.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)