Market Exists for Facebook User IDs, But Risk May Outweigh Benefits

Allegations that Facebook app companies transferred user IDs to data firms have the online marketing world buzzing, and even grabbed the attention of U.S. legislators. It is unclear if many online marketers exploit the fact that they can retrieve Facebook user IDs, but it appears there is a market for them.

“We’ve all known that you could get the user IDs,” said Marty Weintraub, president of digital marketing firm aimClear. Facebook applications are “only the tip of the iceberg. We know other places where you can get user IDs,” he said, adding that his firm has not tested techniques for uncovering Facebook user IDs.

Advertisers are interested in the data. Weintraub said an internationally-known “mainstream” advertiser client with over 100,000 Facebook likes inquired recently about retrieving the user IDs of those likers. Though aimClear would not perform that service, Weintraub said, “We told [the client] how they could scrape user IDs just from one of the templates in Facebook.” Weintraub said he stressed to the client that by doing so, the company would be alienating Facebook, an important marketing channel.

In the end, the client decided to take the high road and chose to do what many brands do to collect personal information from Facebook users: It built an application intended to appeal to people who use its product.

“The reason to build a Facebook app is to serve and delight users. If you earn that data then that’s really cool,” said Weintraub.

A Wall Street Journal story published Monday made waves, alleging that some top Facebook applications such as Zynga’s FarmVille had transmitted “Facebook ID numbers to at least 25 advertising and data firms, several of which build profiles of Internet users by tracking their online activities.” The article referred to the transfer of Facebook user IDs as a “privacy breach” because, the story stated, “Facebook prohibits app makers from transferring data about users to outside advertising and data companies, even if a user agrees.”

In addition to helping advertisers gain deeper insights about target audiences and “build out more complete personas,” Weintraub explained that user IDs can enable marketers to make additional social connections with consumers.

“You can take that list of individuals and then tell the community manager to get to know them,” he said, noting that advertisers might be able to find those users on Twitter and follow them, for instance. He also implied doing so would challenge the ethical standards of some marketers. “It’s like having an inside e-mail list that has integrity and then selling the list.”

Despite the potential benefits of gaining a Facebook user ID, Weintraub said Facebook targeting “is too awesome without it.”

The Wall Street Journal article prompted a letter from U.S. Representatives Joe Barton of Texas and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, co-chairs of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. The Congressmen asked Facebook to respond to a series of questions involving Facebook data security.

“As our privacy policy states, when a Facebook user connects with an application, the user ID is part of the information that the application receives,” wrote Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s manager of public policy communications in a statement sent to ClickZ News. “The suggestion that the passing of a user ID to an application, as described in Facebook’s privacy policy, constitutes a ‘breach’ is curious at best. We also prohibit applications from transferring user data to ad networks or data brokers, and when we receive a report that such an improper transfer has occurred, we investigate and take action as appropriate.”

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