Facebook just launched a potentially massive new ad network called Atlas. According to a headline in The New York Times, Atlas "opens the gates" to Facebook’s "vault of user data." It sounds like a PR disaster waiting to happen — the kind of thing that's going to startle local news. It also sounds like Google, the market leader in digital ads, should be very afraid — but should you?
First, let’s nail down what Atlas actually does. Up to now, Facebook has been using cookies to track what websites you visit on your computer so it can show you targeted ads once you return to Facebook.com. With Atlas, you’ll see these same kinds of ads from Facebook on other websites, but also on your phone. Atlas also attempts to find out what percentage of people bought something after they saw an ad, and then shares this data with advertisers.
"Facebook says it never discloses the identity of individuals."
Atlas sounds like a lot of sharing, but despite what you may have read, Facebook is not handing over your name, location, and blood type to advertisers. Its monolithic ad side is just getting bigger. The Times’ Vindu Goel admits in his article: "Facebook says it never discloses the identity of individuals to marketers, and that any matching of, say, Pepsi’s own database of its fans to Facebook’s data is done on a blind basis." So what does this "vault of user data" entail?
Not much new, in fact. Google, among others, uses the same tactics to show you ads in Gmail based on what you’ve searched for and emailed about in the past. Then, Google tells advertisers how many people clicked their sponsored links. If advertisers add special tags to their checkout pages, Google can even tell them which ads led directly to purchases — but this works mostly on desktop users, since cookies aren’t as effective on mobile.
So where is Atlas different, and potentially creepier than Google? First, Atlas works on mobile, and attempts to pair your desktop identity with your mobile one. It might sound sketchy, but Atlas does so by using Apple and Google’s "advertising identifiers," which are totally fair game. "Atlas will not allow its cross-device data to leave Facebook’s walls," AdExchanger points out, which means advertisers still can't pin you down on an individual basis.
"Atlas will not allow its cross-device data to leave Facebook’s walls."
Atlas also attempts to track where you’ve been shopping offline — something marketers consider to be a sort of holy grail. But Facebook isn’t doing any of the tracking. "If you’re running ads on Instagram and use Atlas you can see who saw them, and if they bought something," Facebook’s head of advertising technology David Jakubowski told Bloomberg. Here’s how that actually works: Nike, for example, might provide Facebook with a large list of people who bought Nike shoes. Then Facebook will compare this list to the users who saw Nike’s ads, and inform Nike what percentage of targeted people bought the advertised pair of shoes. Once again, Atlas won’t name names.
The ads you’re going to see across the web will likely become even more relevant, since Facebook arguably knows more about you than Google and others. Some people find this annoying and creepy, while others find value in targeted ads. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with highly targeted ads — sometimes I get ads for dresses (after Googling for a gift for a friend), while other times I get super-relevant ads for concerts that I then decide to attend. Now, said concert advertiser might know that their ad actually worked on some people. But not on me.
So, should you be afraid of Atlas? Not any more than you’re already afraid of targeted online ads, which have been around for many years. As Peter Kafka at Recode’s points out, targeted ads are everywhere on the web — "if you’re worried about this kind of thing you shouldn’t be on Facebook," he writes. "Actually, the whole web is probably a no-go zone for you. Sorry."
Facebook, and many other sites, have been following you across the web for years — but being followed by advertisers IRL does sound a bit terrifying, like a scene out of Minority Report. Fortunately, we aren’t quite there yet. Right now Atlas doesn’t work in reverse — Nike can’t ask Facebook which people have visited a Nike store — but a world where Facebook does share this information might not be far off. Now a public company, Facebook might someday decide to give away more data for the sake of company growth. And, while Facebook isn't actually sharing more about you with advertisers today, it might do so someday. If the cons of using Facebook ever outweigh the pros, you should consider other options, like... Ello? No, probably something else.