A recent study conducted by Consumer Reports, in collaboration with The Markup, has brought to light the extensive and pervasive nature of data tracking targeted at Facebook users. The study involved 709 volunteers who provided archives of their Facebook user data, revealing that a staggering 186,892 different companies transmitted data about these users to Facebook. On average, each participant’s data was shared by 2,230 companies, with some users experiencing data-sharing by over 7,000 companies.
The study shed light on a lesser-known form of tracking called server-to-server tracking, where personal data is directly transferred from a company’s servers to Meta’s servers. This method operates alongside the more visible approach involving Meta tracking pixels on company websites. In response to these revelations, Emil Vazquez, a spokesperson for Meta (formerly Facebook), defended the company’s data practices, emphasizing the transparency tools offered to users for understanding and managing shared information. However, Consumer Reports identified issues with these tools, citing unclear data provider identities and instances where companies servicing advertisers ignored user opt-out requests.
One surprising discovery was the widespread presence of LiveRamp, a data broker, appearing in the data of 96 percent of the study participants. The list of companies sharing data with Facebook extended beyond obscure data brokers to include well-known retailers such as Home Depot, Macy’s, Walmart, and others, along with entities like Experian, TransUnion’s Neustar, Amazon, Etsy, and PayPal. Notably, LiveRamp did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
The study’s data collection involved two main types: “events” and “custom audiences.” “Events” encompassed real-world interactions facilitated by Meta’s software in apps, tracking pixels on websites, and server-to-server tracking. Meanwhile, “custom audiences” involved advertisers uploading customer lists to Meta, including email addresses and mobile advertising IDs, to target ads on Meta’s platforms.
Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, expressed concern about the extensive tracking revealed in the study. She emphasized that this form of tracking, occurring entirely outside the user’s view, goes far beyond what people expect when using the internet. Fitzgerald noted that consumers don’t anticipate Meta knowing details such as the stores they visit, the news articles they read, or every site they visit online. The findings underscore growing concerns about the privacy implications of data tracking practices by tech giants like Meta.