Is Facebook Beacon a Privacy Nightmare?


Mark Zuckerberg & Co. stood up in front of the advertising community in New York today and unveiled Facebook Ads, an ad system that allows companies to use the Facebook social graph and to develop highly targeted ads. Large brands such as Coca-Cola (KO), Sony Pictures (SNE) and Verizon (VZ) have signed on for this effort. Part of the engine powering this new ad system is called Beacon, which takes data from 44 web destinations and mashes it up with Facebook’s internal information to help build more focused advertising messages.

While it seems to be a clever idea, a quick review reveals that Beacon might turn out to be a privacy hairball for the company. [digg=]

The 44 sites that have partnered with Facebook include everyone from Kongregate, LiveJournal, NYTimes (NYT), Sony Online, Blockbuster (BBI),, STA Travel, The Knot, TripAdvisor, Travel Ticker, TypePad, viagogo, Vox, Yelp, and

These partner sites put a little a piece of Facebook javascript on their web site and certain information, cleverly (and innocuously) labeled as a user alert, is sent to Facebook. For instance, Fandago users can publish information about the movies they saw. It all seems like a clever idea because it lets Facebook triangulate your likes and dislikes even more, and deliver more focused ads.

Facebook Beacon provides advanced privacy controls so Facebook users can decide whether to distribute specific actions from participating sites with their friends.

Reading that line prompted the following questions, which I put to Facebook:

1. Can consumers opt out of this?
2. If yes, does their data get erased?
3. Will the sites for example, Fandango, stop sending all personal and any kind of information to Facebook once the user opts out?
4. Why didn’t they make this an opt-in feature, instead of being an opt-out feature?

Their PR spokesperson emailed me this response:

Users can opt-out of Beacon on a per-site basis. They can opt-out for each action, or they can opt-out to never have an affiliated site send stories to Facebook. For instance, a user that buys The Notebook from Blockbuster can stop a story from being published about it, or she can opt-out of having Blockbuster publish any actions she takes on the Blockbuster site.

The response doesn’t seem to answer my questions and basically makes it seem like users have control over this data, when in reality, this is a privacy disaster waiting to happen. The javascript on the Fandango site pops up a little screen which asks if you want to publish the information on Facebook. If you say no, your friends won’t see the information, but apparently Facebook still receives it. This means that if you are a Facebook member, Facebook will know what you are doing on each of their partner sites. And there is no way for you to opt out of that. Or is there? I asked Facebook to clarify and I am still waiting for them to write back.

As for the rest of their announcement, while long and elaborate, it doesn’t contain any information we haven’t already seen. MySpace (NWS) has been doing brand specific-pages for a while now, in addition to using other targeting techniques.



Facebook does not give 2nd chance to their subscribers when they disabled the accounts.. thats my concerns because they disabled it without any reasons.. they are more than a God who does not care for the feelings of their subscriber whom they got their Living……………..

simon from spa2go hot tubs

Look if facebook want to do it or not it’s still going to bring up the same issue as always. We don’t get a say anyway!! and anyway is it really that bad to be getting targeted advertising??? If I’m on facebook and im getting adds about things i actually care about it’s going to make my user experience ( even though im getting sucked into the advertising vortex) a better experience!! as I’m a young guy i dont really want to keep seeing adds about hair loss!!! Some advertising does have value and i would prefer the value to be targeted to me.


This is a great feature for advertisers, but users may frown upon it a bit. I think advertisers would be better off using an advertising network like Adwido instead where advertisements are sought out and not forced on people.


Great post. I wonder how much user-testing facebook will conduct after seeing the slow decline of MySpace viewership versus Facebook’s! Or will we see a third niche social networking site rise from the many out there that just says ‘no’ to making 1/2 of the social networking site pages ads?

Foreclosure lawyer

I agree with Kevin. Since most users do not care about this feature, it should be opt-out. If the feature was opt-in it wouldn’t be effective. At least they are letting the user make a choice.


Kevin from Best Online Dating Site Reviews

If you think Facebook is invading your privacy then think: most users are already in the habit of sharing their personal details and activities with other users on the site by default. You can always opt out by using the Beacon opt-out button, but many Facebook users couldn’t care less.


of service providers to make a buck has spawned ever more intrusive ad models (Hello, Beacon!) But while hyper-targeted ads and behavioral advertising raise of service providers to make a buck has spawned ever more intrusive ad models (Hello, Beacon!) But while hyper-targeted ads and behavioral advertising raise d

Dale D

With the amount of traffic flowing through the social networks, it seems almost inevitable that advertisers will try to capitalize on these extraordinary amount of “eyeballs”.
Privacy on the web may be some what of an illusion.
It’s more about the use of information


I realize I’m a little late to the party, but I just have to say that your reference to the potential, “privacy hairball” is a brilliant use of language. Loved it!


Guardian Angel

I have a lot of younger friends on Facebook. I’m almost 40 but my workplace is full of young hip gen Y er’s. You know, young dumb and having fun, naive, but all good kids. I fear some of there lives may be seriously screwed 10 years from now.

Mad at Facebook

Here is a quote from Facebook privacy settings which I got when I tried to disable this crap “Please note that these settings only affect notifications on Facebook. You will still be notified on affiliate websites when they send stories to Facebook. You will be able to decline individual stories at that time.” So even though I declined to not have my privacy violated, I still have to put up with these pop up messages?

Steve Arun

Great Post OM! We were about to launch development of an small facebook application, now we have scrapped the same.

I came across several posts like this, when I was browsing a site hosted by Stanford University Class on Facebook study. I accidentally landed on there page, when I was researching on who is using my theme Redie 3.0 :)and that help me to think again.

No one still sure about the type of information facebook collect? Even though we block the facebook beacon using firefox extension, chances are there if they collect more informations of users from the activity done on machine itself.

Thanks for this great info.

Gab Goldenberg on Facebook

Hi Om,

Let me put this question to you: did Facebook lose its users when it made the newsfeed (or, in this privacy context, the stalkerfeed)? If anything it made people more addicted. I don’t think people will react negatively on the privacy front. What may be an issue is a backlash against unsolicited ads. People avoid clicking ads and feel good about it, so this push strategy may piss some off.

That all said, my results show better CTR since the change, though it’s still results on my flyers, so IDK if they’ve also been affected.

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