If you’ve ever felt like Facebook always knows where you’ve been in spite of adjusting settings in its mobile apps to stop the app from accessing your location, then you’re not the only one. Facebook does indeed track your location when you’re using its apps, and it’s all done to serve targeted ads to users. Even without access to your accurate location data from the smartphone, Facebook uses information from your browsing habits, including IP address, Wi-Fi network, and Bluetooth to pinpoint your whereabouts and place relevant ads inside its apps. And all of this happens as Facebook continues to give users the impression they can control whether or not they share location data with Facebook.
University of Southern California computer science professor Aleksandra Korolova explained how Facebook does it in great detail on Medium. Even though the Location Services setting was turned to “Never” in the iPhone Facebook app, and Location History was cleared and turned off, Facebook still showed Korolova ads that matched her location.
Moreover, I have noticed that whenever I travel for work or pleasure, Facebook continues to keep track of my location and use it for advertising: a trip to Glacier National Park resulted in an ad for activities in Whitefish, Montana, a trip to Cambridge, MA — in an ad for a business there, and a visit to Herzeliya, Israel — in an ad for a business there.
She says Facebook can’t glean information about her from her other interactions with Facebook or its other apps, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Facebook Messenger. Location tracking is turned off for all ads and she doesn’t share photos with location data on Facebook. But the location-related ads keep popping up.
The report explains that Facebook isn’t really forthcoming about its location tracking, nor is it willing to offer users controls that would prevent the social network from using IP addresses or Wi-Fi data to locate users.
Some people may argue that it’s all standard operating procedure for companies that offer online services for “free,” with ads showing in the background of everything you do. And Facebook does need to make money to keep providing its services. Also, many Internet users have no problem with Facebook swiping their location data for ads. But there may be cases where people could abuse this feature, since Facebook allows ad targeting down to a very small geographic area, like a house (as seen in the screenshot above). The professor also offers the following example:
This means anyone in the world can create an ad campaign to reach people who have recently visited a particular location, such as a place of worship or an abortion clinic. And since individuals cannot meaningfully stop Facebook from inferring or using their location for advertising, they also cannot avoid such ads. Imagine opening Facebook during a visit to an abortion clinic to communicate with friends for support in a difficult decision, and instead, seeing an ad campaign for cute baby clothes created by anyone who wants to target women making this difficult decision.
Facebook could change its location-tracking policies to actually give users control over the data they choose to share in the future if it wanted to. Or lawmakers in certain markets may force it to address these issues. But if you’re concerned about Facebook tracking your location, the only thing you can do right now is to remove all Facebook apps from your phone and stop using it altogether. Of course, that’s not necessarily a viable option for specific apps, especially chat apps like WhatsApp and Instagram. The latter already displays ads, while the former is going to deliver advertising to users next year.
Facebook confirmed to Gizmodo that it’s tracking users by collecting IP addresses as well as data from check-ins and other content. And users can’t turn the feature off:
Facebook does not use WiFi data to determine your location for ads if you have Location Services turned off. We do use IP and other information such as check-ins and current city from your profile. We explain this to people, including in our Privacy Basics site and on the About Facebook Ads site.
There is no way for people to opt out of using location for ads entirely. We use city and zip level location which we collect from IP addresses and other information such as check-ins and current city from your profile to ensure we are providing people with a good service—from ensuring they see Facebook in the right language, to making sure that they are shown nearby events and ads for businesses that are local to them.