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Facebook Atlas will only work because we're all idiots

James Temperton
29 Sep 2014
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Opinion: Facebook's new advertising platform shows the company finally realising its potential. We should all be terrified

Advertising on the web is broken. Facebook, with its 1.32 billion monthly active users, wants to change that. Dodgy flashing banners and spurious claims about losing belly flab or meeting 'hot babes' have plagued the internet for years. And they still will. But now advertisers and marketers have a new toy.

Announcing the relaunch of Atlas, its new "people-based marketing" system, Facebook said it would (partially) ditch cookies in favour of tracking everyone, everywhere – even in real life. Facebook's impenetrable marketing waffle is there to obfuscate exactly what's going on. Be in little doubt: details of your life are about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder to try and sell you new shoes.

Much as it tries, the internet doesn't know who I am. The internet is an idiot. When I search for a handbag I shouldn't be stalked around the web by advertisers screaming BUY THIS HANDBAG at me. It is equally moronic to show me adverts for Devon Airport transfers above an email about booking a taxi from Faro Airport. Faro isn't in Devon. It is in Portugal.

Facebook's solution is rather elegant: sell all the information you willingly spoon into its data hole to advertisers. After purchasing Atlas from Microsoft in 2013 Facebook has been busy hooking it up to its ever-growing database. Less irrelevant, spammy advertising can only be a good thing.

But think about it. Facebook knows your name, age, gender, sexual orientation, relationship status and favourite Angie Dickinson movie. It knows where you went for dinner last night, where you went on holiday in April and what you think and feel. Facebook has also had a crack at trying to influence your emotions by fiddling with what updates you see.

Atlas says that all this data puts Facebook in the perfect position to "accurately measure the customer purchase funnel". I would rather it didn't accurately measure my funnel. If you have a Facebook account then your data will now be used to fire adverts at you from every crevice of the internet.

What Facebook hopes to do with Atlas is what Google has tried and failed to do with Google+, its glorious echo-chamber populated only by Google employees and the confused. Not only will advertisers using Atlas be given access to your (anonymised) data they will also be able to see how often you see adverts, on what device and your physical location when you do.

The technology is ingenious. Open mouthed, idly tapping and typing on our computers, phones and tablets we have handed Facebook a dazzling cache of information. We will now be stalked across the internet with unprecedented precision, the details of our lives used by marketers to cram new products down our struggling throats.

Hand-wringing aside, you do have a choice. You can quit Facebook, delete your account, install browser plug-ins to block all web adverts and disable settings on services and websites and don your tinfoil hat to ensure that the marketers don't get inside your brain. But most people won't.

Facebook's new advertising technology is more accurate, better informed and utterly terrifying. Adverts using Facebook data will soon confront you across the internet as a more and more detailed profile is built. Facebook is right; online advertising is broken and does need to change. But not at the expense of your privacy.

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