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Creeped Out by Online Ads? A UMD Researcher Is Studying How Companies Target You

Project Aims to Create Tools for Greater Transparency

By UMIACS Communications Staff

Collage of online ads

Our daily online activities can touch off an avalanche of ads on websites and social media feeds. New UMD research aims to create more transparency on how companies engage in targeted advertising.

You might have felt unsettled after doing a simple web search for, say, restaurant recommendations, and then seeing your Facebook feed stuffed with ads for nearby eateries. Or maybe you’ve Googled how to fix your lawnmower, only to be stalked on your social media accounts by a torrent of virtual Toros.

Targeted online advertising is now ubiquitous, with search engines and online social networks using powerful computing technologies so that sellers can deliver their pitches with disturbing accuracy. While these technologies can help users see more relevant ads, they also raise privacy and equity concerns; they can even affect employment, housing and credit opportunities that internet users see.

With $1.2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a University of Maryland expert in cybersecurity and human-computer interaction is part of a multi-institutional team working to develop a deeper understanding of how consumers’ personal information is used to generate online targeted ads.

Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science and director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center, is a co-principal investigator on the project, working with Damon McCoy, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at New York University; Blase Ur, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Chicago; and Miriam Metzger, a professor of communication and information technologies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Our work is about building tools that can help to inform users about targeted advertising—on both how it personally affects them, and how targeted advertising is used broadly,” said Mazurak, who also holds an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.

Digital ad spending is expected to exceed a record $571 billion this year, due in part to the appeal of companies mining potential customers’ data on their online activities to reach them directly. Some tech titans, however, are tuning into consumer discomfort: Targeted advertising is undergoing a transformation in the name of transparency, which began with Apple’s decision to let its users opt out of apps tracking and sharing their data. The change resulted in Meta reporting revenue losses for the first time ever, predicting that it will lose $10 billion this year.

Despite these efforts, initial studies have found significant shortcomings in the current transparency mechanisms.

The NSF-funded project seeks to develop new mechanisms that make targeted ad transparency information readily available, and thus more useful to researchers, journalists, civil-society groups and internet users.

The project builds on previous research by Mazurek and Ur, as well as McCoy’s prior work auditing Meta. Ultimately, Mazurek said, the research will focus on providing information that could significantly increase consumers’ trust in targeted advertising.

“We’re trying to improve transparency to this process because research suggests that currently, if users don’t have a clear understanding of what's going on and have an easily accessible option, many will indeed opt out” of seeing target ads altogether, Mazurek said.



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