NSF-Funded Study Examines How Companies Target Online Advertising

In an effort to better understand how advertisers access and use consumers’ personal information to generate online targeted ads, the National Science Foundation is funding a multi-institutional team that includes NYU Tandon’s Dr. Damon McCoy as co-principal investigator. Under the $1.2 million grant, McCoy and his colleagues are charged with developing strategies to make targeted ad transparency information more accessible to those who can benefit the most from it, such as academic researchers, journalists, and non-profit organizations.

McCoy, an associate professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Tandon and cofounder of Cybersecurity for Democracy, brings to the team extensive experience in monitoring and analyzing political advertising on social media. He will work alongside Michelle Mazurek, an associate professor of computer science and director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center; 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.

The project will not only seek to answer HOW this type of data leveraging works, but also WHAT the impact of these practices might be in terms of user privacy and equity. As noted in an article about the grant in Maryland Today, tying ad selection so closely to an individual’s personal data can “affect employment, housing and credit opportunities that internet users see. ” While some technology firms are indeed working towards enhanced transparency in their dealings with user data, existing mechanisms are falling short.