Does fb scan gmail?
February 12, 2017 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Yesterday I got news of a relative's death via email (gmail). A few hours later I saw a "sponsored post" in fb for a church in a nearby town, and that posting mentioned grief counseling. Coincidence or not?

Further possibly relevant info:
- I log into gmail and fb via the same browser and they are both open pretty much all the time
- I have adblock plus and ghostery activate in that browser
- I have gmail monitoring and ad targeting as locked down as I could find a couple of years ago, but I haven't revisited this recently.
- The email notification was from person A to person B, who then forwarded it to me. Both emails were short and used people's names. There were no relationship words like mother, uncle, cousin, husband. The death was described as person C having "passed away."
- I sent a short email reply to person B and then contacted person A by iMessage.
- I did not post about this death on fb
- I did not do any google searches related to this death or grief or any similar terms, including googling the name of the person who died.
- I did speak about this (verbally) with someone in the room with me, but neither of us have fb or fb messenger apps on our phones, and I do not generally get ads based on discussions that my computer or phone might have overheard.
- I do not have any religious affiliation indicated on fb and I do not generally see ads for churches or any other religious organizations though I do occasionally get fed ads for "Christian singles" near me.

Is this random fluke, or is fb somehow finding cues for ads in my gmail?
posted by 2 cats in the yard to Technology (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Seems doubtful, but there are likely other clues. For example, did anyone you know post about the death? Or were you FB friends with the person who died, and maybe their account has been shut?
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:27 AM on February 12, 2017

Coincidence. The way sponsored posts work on Facebook, is that you can target people by geography (a local church would choose a local region), age (any from/to between 18 and 65+), and interests (anything in FB's interests taxonomy). For the interests, the promoted post will only be shown to people who have expressly selected an interest; Facebook does not infer interests based on your posts and certainly doesn't have access to your Gmail. You can also narrow the targeting down to "people who like your page" or "people who like your page and their friends." There is no option in the order form for anything else. So in this case, besides targeting you by age and geography, it's possible that the church targeted something you have listed as an interest in your profile, AND/OR that a FB friend of yours has "liked" the church's page and the church chose to target FB friends of people who liked their page.
posted by beagle at 10:58 AM on February 12, 2017

It can see your clipboard so if you copied some of the text to use in a message or IM to someone else that may have done it.

I learned this while updating my Christmas list, which is an OpenOffice text document. I copied "silver horse necklace" from the Ideas column to the Purchased column, switched over to facebook and saw an ad for... silver horse necklaces. Similar things have happened enough that I am sure it's not a fluke. The clipboard is how I explain that one but there have been others that are just spooky and I'm not sure how they did it.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:59 AM on February 12, 2017 [8 favorites]

Note that there is a difference between Facebook ads and Facebook promoted posts. Promoted posts can be targeted only as I described above. Facebook ads appear in the side column and can be targeted in additional ways described here, which include "activities that people do on or off Facebook that inform on which device they're using, purchase behaviors or intents, travel preferences and more."

And if you are using the Facebook mobile app, yes indeed targeting can include what you've put into your clipboard. But again: just for ads, not for promoted posts.
posted by beagle at 11:22 AM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Facebook also tracks your general browsing across the web using cookies and those ubiquitous like buttons on every web page. So Facebook knows every web page you've been to that has a like button on it. Did you do any web surfing related to, say, funeral homes or arrangements? If so, likely that's how you got targeted.

FB snooping on the clipboard is new to me, but hardly surprising.

Install a browser add-on called Privacy Badger if you'd like to to block this tracking. There are numerous other apps with similar functionality, but Privacy Badger is pretty much set and forget.
posted by MoTLD at 11:25 AM on February 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Thanks for all the comments.

I didn't use the clipboard for anything related to this, nor search or browse related info such as funeral homes or burial traditions. I don't use the mobile app. Thanks for the suggestion of Privacy Badger - unfortunately it doesn't work on my browser (Safari).

I was not fb friends with the deceased (though I am friends with friends of his) and I am pretty sure that none of my fb friends posted anything about this death yesterday. After reading that comment above, I even went directly to the pages of the few fb friends of mine who might have done so, and they hadn't. The death was very recent and it's unlikely that anyone has notified fb yet. His fb page appears normal.

If the post from the church hadn't mentioned a grief group I would have chalked it up to being primarily location-based, so maybe that is still the case and it is just a really odd coincidence.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 12:49 PM on February 12, 2017

I've suspected that FB has access to my email ever since my therapist turned up as a "person I may know." She and I certainly weren't linked on FB (no mutual friends) but we did email.
posted by mermaidcafe at 1:01 PM on February 12, 2017

Back when I was on Facebook it started targeting me with IVF ads right after a friend told new via gmail she was using IVF. I am pretty convinced it was no coincidence. I suspect the phone app is extra stalkery, so maybe gmail on mobile is an even more likely vector.
posted by lollusc at 1:07 PM on February 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I was " suggested" my esthetitian as a Facebook friend and we have zero shared friends, and I use a variation of my name for my profile. I assumed at the time that Facebook accessed my contact list somehow since she and I only text or call, never email.
posted by Rapunzel1111 at 1:38 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Was there an ad for the church in your gmail? If the church placed an ad in your gmail, I could see them setting a 3rd party cookie, and then when you went to Facebook a retargeting campaign saw the cookie and presented you an additional ad for the church.
posted by willnot at 5:48 PM on February 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know that it has access to phone contacts as whenever I have someone in my phone contacts it suggests them as a friend.
posted by heatherly at 7:56 AM on February 13, 2017

I think willnot is on to something here. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if FB themselves buy ad space in Gmail, just to set such cookies and get a once-removed insight into the contents of users' mail.
posted by MoTLD at 10:46 AM on February 13, 2017

Gmail ads are a possibility, yes. I don't see them b/c I have ad blocks on, and they should not be targeted by anything I write or search for - but presumably I still get them and they might well still be targeted by location.
(Though I don't think I allow third-party cookies.)
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 5:28 PM on February 13, 2017

GMail ads don't actually allow tracking pixels or cookies to be dropped by third parties. I am not sure exactly how the enforcement works, so there's a tiny chance someone figured out a way around that restriction.

(This would not apply if you actually clicked on the ad, but otherwise it's at the very least a violation of GMail ad policies and may be sanitized/checked before ads are approved)
posted by thefoxgod at 7:36 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

GMail ads don't actually allow tracking pixels or cookies to be dropped by third parties. Right and even if they figured out a way around this, as noted above Facebook does not have a mechanism to use cookies in targeting promoted posts — only location, age, gender and expressed interests. So again, it would truly have to be a stretch for this not to be a simple coincidence. Churches DO used promoted posts. Grief counseling IS a common service of churches and a good entry point to publicize.
posted by beagle at 9:11 AM on February 16, 2017

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