mack grenfell

Facebook Scraping, Still a Privacy Disaster

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Behind Google Ads, Facebook Ads is 2nd largest ads platform in the world. It allows advertisers to reach users across all of Facebook’s main properties; Facebook itself, Instagram, Messenger and (soon) WhatsApp.

Facebook Ads lets advertisers target users using a variety of methods. These range from the broad and benign, like targeting people in North America aged between 18 and 45, to the granular and precise, like targeting parents of newborns who also own a pet cat.

The range of targeting options available to advertisers has changed frequently throughout the years, at times increasing and at others reducing. More recently, Facebook appears to have been cutting down on certain targeting options that pose too much of a threat to user privacy.

While Facebook’s actions have trended in the direction of removing options for precise micro-targeting, a wealth of options still remain for advertisers. One lesser-known option is the ability to target people who are members of specific groups, or who like specific Facebook pages.

Cue LeadEnforce

Facebook itself doesn’t offer these targeting options, but they are available via third party tools such as LeadEnforce. LeadEnforce offers advertisers the ability to pick specific Facebook groups or pages whose fans they want to target.

LeadEnforce will then pull together an audience of all of the people they can find who are members of that group, or who like the relevant page. This audience is then shared with the advertiser so that they can use it to target their ads.

You Can Tell a Lot from The Pages You Follow

The usage examples on LeadEnforce’s site are fairly mundane. They suggest how a car dealer could target a fictional ‘Car Sales’ group in order to find potential customers. Or how someone (I don’t know who) could target a group called ‘Content-marketing’ in order to find, I guess, content marketers.

The first time I actually came across LeadEnforce I thought it was an interesting idea, but quickly moved on. It wasn’t until a month or two later that I realised how much personal information can be gleamed about someone by knowing what groups they belong to, or which pages they like.

If you wanted to target people affected by cancer, you could target the 34,821 members of Cancer Survivors & Supporters. If you wanted to exclude LGBTQ people from seeing your ads, you could use LeadEnforce to build an audience of people who like LGBTQ Nation, and tell Facebook not to show ads to them.

With all the scrutiny that Facebook has come under in recent years for its role in elections, it’s particularly notable that you could use LeadEnforce to target sensitive political groups. If the UK conservative party wanted to suppress the Labour vote amongst Jews, they could create an audience from the 49,123 people who like Campaign Against Antisemitism, and show them ads to invoke fears of antisemitism in the Labour party.

My Trial with LeadEnforce

To test if LeadEnforce would actually allow me to do the things above, I created a trial account with them. I input the URL for the Campaign Against Antisemitism Facebook group into LeadEnforce, and less than an hour later it had successfully managed to find details for 13,313 of the people who liked the page.

LeadEnforce let me see ages, genders, locations, relationship statuses, education and employer details for these members. LeadEnforce didn’t give me the names of individuals, but it did give me their initials:

I’ve blurred the initials and locations, for (hopefully) obvious reasons

I then wanted to see what the process was like for actually getting this data into a Facebook Ads account, to see how easy it would be to target this audience.

To do so I had to accept LeadEnforce’s Marketing Agreement. There was nothing in the agreement that appeared to prevent me from using the tool to create any of the audiences mentioned above.

Once I’d accepted this, I was able to share the audience I’d built to a freshly-created Facebook Ads account, and start running ads targeted to the audience almost immediately. For obvious reasons, I didn’t actually run any ads. I was however able to put everything in place so that I was just a switch of a flick away from showing ads to 13,313 people who liked the Campaign Against Antisemitism Facebook page.

It doesn’t appear that this was a one-off either, or that LeadEnforce had restrictions on what audiences I could or couldn’t build. I was also able to build audiences of people who’d liked LGBTQ Nation, and members of both Cancer Survivors & Supporters and UK Muslim Group.

To Wrap Up

I’m not suggesting for a minute that LeadEnforce has any customers who use the tool to target audiences like those mentioned above, nor am I suggesting that they have ever had such customers. What my trial with LeadEnforce showed though is that it’s a powerful tool, one which is capable of doing much more than the Facebook Ads platform allows on its own.

If a bad actor were to use LeadEnforce to target any of the audiences I’ve outlined above, it’s believable that their doing so could go wholly undetected. And in a world of high-stakes elections, and where social media knows more about us than our partners, that’s a scary thought.