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Research Tool AdFisher Monitors Online Ad Ecosystem

posted by Nichole Dwyer
July 9, 2015

Experiments by CyLab researchers showed that significantly fewer women than men were shown online ads promising them help getting jobs paying more than $200,000, raising questions about the fairness of targeting ads online.

The study of Google ads, using a CMU-developed tool called AdFisher that runs experiments with simulated user profiles, established that the gender discrimination was real, said Anupam Datta, associate professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering. Still unknown, he emphasized, is who or what is responsible. Was it the preference of advertisers? Or was it the unintended consequence of machine learning algorithms that drive online recommendation engines?

“This just came out of the blue,” Datta said of the gender discrimination finding, which was part of a larger study of the operation of Google’s Ad Settings Web page, formerly known as Ad Preferences. The finding underscores the importance of using tools such as AdFisher to monitor the online ad ecosystem.

“Many important decisions about the ads we see are being made by online systems,” Datta said. “Oversight of these ‘black boxes’ is necessary to make sure they don’t compromise our values.”

The study, published in the Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies and presented this month, used the automated AdFisher tool to run 21 experiments evaluating Ad Settings, a Web page Google created to give users some control over the ads delivered to them. The work is part of a growing body of research that has established Carnegie Mellon CyLab as a leader in the study of cybersecurity and online privacy.

Read the full press release.

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