Visible to the public SaTC: CORE: Medium: Collaborative Research: Understanding and Mitigating the Privacy and Societal Risks of Advanced Advertising Targeting and TrackingConflict Detection Enabled

Project Details

Performance Period

Oct 01, 2019 - Sep 30, 2022


University of Southern California


National Science Foundation

Award Number

Advertising now funds most of the popular web sites and internet services: companies often provide their services for free, in exchange for collecting data from their users as they interact with the service. In recent years, the scale and resolution of user data that platforms collect has led to a dramatic increase in the variety of targeting, reporting, measurement, and tracking mechanisms that platforms offer to advertisers. Unfortunately, our understanding of the privacy and societal risks of these mechanisms has not kept pace with this increase, raising scientific questions about how much advertisers can learn about platform users through these mechanisms, as well as about their potential for acting in a biased or discriminatory way. Because anyone on the Internet can sign up to be an advertiser on all of these platforms -- granting access to these mechanisms and data at very low cost -- understanding their implications is a critical need. The goal of this project is to improve privacy for all users, and raise awareness among users and regulators of the extensive -- and often hidden -- advertising ecosystem that underlies today's popular services, and the privacy and societal risks it poses.

This project is following a three-pronged research agenda. The first set of research tasks centers on enhancing privacy, addressing the problem of revealing advertising statistics while providing strong guarantees of user privacy based on methods from the field of differential privacy. The second set of research tasks focuses on detecting and preventing discrimination, addressing the multitude of ways in which the advertising platforms' features could inadvertently or intentionally discriminate against different groups through the choice of which ads to display to which users. The third set of research tasks addresses issues of transparency and control, studying whether current transparency practices are comprehensive and truthful from both users' and regulators' perspectives, and whether the provided control features have the expected effects on ad delivery and align with people's expectations of privacy.