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Do you respond to Facebook ads? Tracking feature can find out

You’re walking down the street, and check Facebook on a mobile device. Brushing past your thumb is a little ad for McDonald’s.

Do you then go into McDonald’s? McDonald’s, which pays for the ads, would like to know. Facebook, which sells them the ads, would like to tell them you do.

And the technology in your pocket can answer the question. Will you be aware of it? Almost certainly not.

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted,” mused the American entrepreneur John Wanamaker. “The trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

For many years, and to an extent today, companies watch business come in, watch ad dollars go out, and wish they understood the relationship better.

For example, if McDonald’s buys ad space on Facebook, does that prompt people seeing the ad on mobile to go to a physical McDonald’s?

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With Store Visits Reporting, a feature Facebook started offering its advertisers earlier this month, the social network started tracking that relationship.

READ MORE: Does your phone help build Google’s traffic maps? (And is that bad?)

Facebook, after all, has all the tools it needs to answer the question.

If you have location services turned on on your phone, Facebook can see if you went into a bricks-and-mortar store after seeing an ad for that store – it knows where you are, it knows when it showed you the ad, and it can tell if you went inside the boundary of the store.

Businesses paying for ads want to measure their effectiveness, explained Mike Manning, a Facebook spokesperson who spoke on the condition he only be paraphrased, not quoted directly. The feature offers Facebook a way of telling advertisers how many people who saw an ad entered a bricks-and-mortar store (the perimeters of the stores have been mapped.)

Facebook avoids claiming there’s a correlation between the two, Manning said.

The simplicity and certainty (such as it is – you might have meant to go to McDonald’s anyway) would have delighted Wanamaker. But many mobile device users, unaware of the conversations their mobile devices are having as they walk down the street, will see it as a breach of privacy.

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Manning’s response, paraphrased, is that: users have consented to this in their user agreements; that information given to advertisers is anonymized, though it is broken down by demographic factors like gender; and Facebook users benefit from ads accurately targeted at them.

Manning conceded that users have to trust Facebook to safeguard personally identifying information.

“These companies, God knows what half of them do with your information because we’re not reading these policies,” Lisa Austin, a University of Toronto law professor and privacy expert said when we started writing about digital privacy. “We don’t know what we’re authorizing them to do, let alone that they’re actually following what they say they’re doing.”

“I think most people don’t know when their app even has location-enabled setting on. I think most people don’t even figure that out.”

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