Facebook Paranoia: Have Consumers Had Enough?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is bad enough. But people are wondering about the whole Facebook value proposition, based on its apparently unlimited use of personal data even outside the political realm.   

For example, UK consumer Charlotte Soares writes to The Guardian that she was served ads based on the content of her personal emails. Specifically, Soares claims that following emails about her mother’s impending death, she was served ads for funeral services.

At another point, she wrote to a friend that she was thinking of going to Italy. Presto, Soares says, “up came an advert on Facebook for Alitalia.”

Soares’ claim could not be independently verified. But if true as presented, this is not good news for email marketers who see a competitive threat in the likes of Facebook, and are fed up by the walled gardens put up by the social media giants. 

It stands to reason that if Facebook can read the emails you send, it can also read the ones you receive, giving it invaluable marketing intelligence. Then there’s the possible privacy scandal that could explode in all our faces. 



Not that any this is new. Google had to back off scanning emails for use in serving advertising, and still faces litigation on multiple fronts. But Google was at least scanning messages in its own email service: Gmail. If Soares’ claim is accurate, how is Facebook accomplishing this?

In the interest of full disclosure, I stopped posting on Facebook months ago, more from sloth than any strong feeling about its data use. I did notice that I was being served a staggering number of ads tied to my other online activity.

Granted, I haven’t seen any ads that seem driven by my email usage, but then I put very little of a personal nature in emails.

The question remains: Is the Soares letter accurate? Did she perhaps forget that she mentioned her mother’s illness in a Facebook post, or that she had visited Facebook pages showing the beauty of sunny Italy? Or had she signed on for an app that funneled her personal data to Facebook and just about anyone else who wanted it?

Regardless of how it achieved the marketing miracle of determining intent to purchase funeral services before the party has even died, Facebook stands to lose money under GDPR. It can’t rely on the passive, negative-option model for consent to use personal data.

True as presented or not, the funeral ad story is bound to grow in resonance, along with the many tales of insensitive email and direct mail to grieving families  — i .e., promotions for infant formula when the baby has died.

These tales are part of junk mail folklore, along with the alleged delivery of thousands of identical direct mail pieces to the same home and the leaving of thousands of pounds of manure being shipped to farmers on a sun-drenched postal siding. (Another version of the story has the product placed on a siding in the rain).  

Of course, Facebook faces much bigger problems than one letter in The Guardian. They are typified by another item in that publication — a column by James Naughton, observing that “the boy wonder CEO came out from under the duvet wearing his signature grey T-shirt” to apologize for the Cambridge Analytica episode.

As Nathan alleges of Mark Zuckerberg: “The lad is beginning to sound like an alcoholic who, after his latest bout of drink-related excess, says sorry and expresses his determination to reform.”

Only one difference: There’s help available for problem drinkers.


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