Once a website targeting mostly college students, Facebook’s popularity has exploded in recent years, a testament to its universal appeal. However, the numerous benefits of online social networking make it easy to overlook the risks associated with sharing private information on Facebook.

Boasting membership numbering into the several hundred millions, Facebook seems a ubiquitous part of modern day life. Many users, however, are unaware of the large number of fake accounts that actually function as advertisers for certain companies.

One popular way for companies to reach a large number of users with their advertisements is to pay individual account holders small amounts to perform a specified task geared toward attracting consumer attention.

“The process works very similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. This project by Amazon hosts small tasks online, which users can complete for small amounts of money, like 25 cents per task, for example,” Christopher Wilson, a UCSB graduate student working in the computer science department, said. “Spammers of ads have successfully implemented a dark side of this system, where they pay people to create accounts and post content. Now it’s harder to detect spam accounts because the new ones are created by individual people, making each one unique.”

While UCSB researchers are working to combat this surge of fake accounts, it is very difficult. The only way to truly shut down these accounts is to go after the website or organization paying them, which has proven a challenging task without the assistance of law enforcement. As the number of sites sponsoring such activities grows each year, the task of stopping companies that use this sly advertising method grows increasingly difficult.

Even so, associate professor of computer science Ben Zhao and his research team successfully developed a new fake account detector, which they tested on China’s largest social network, Renren, to study this new advertising method. The project managed to detect over 100,000 fake users on the website in half a year.

Even more disconcerting is the efficacy of these advertising methods. According to Zhao — who has been studying the digital social networking phenomenon since 2008 — the success of this approach lies in the personal nature of Facebook interactions, which some companies may use to their advantage.

“Unfortunately, in the wrong hands, [online social networks] are also effective tools for executing spam campaigns and spreading malware,” Zhao and others wrote in a study that examined Internet spam campaigns that have infiltrated online social networks. “Intuitively, a user is more likely to respond to a message from a Facebook friend than from a stranger, thus making social spam a more effective distribution mechanism than traditional e-mail.”

Furthermore, Facebook sells user information, including the browsing activities of account holders, to companies who can then place pertinent and personalized advertisements on a user’s page. For example, if you “check in” at a Starbucks, Facebook can relay this information to Starbucks advertisers, who could then place a Starbucks ad on your Facebook.

Even more alarming is the spread of “like” buttons on pages other than Facebook.

“When you log in to Facebook, the site gives you a cookie, giving each user a unique identity so the site knows who you are,” Wilson said. “However, when you navigate to another site, such as a Wall Street Journal article, you’ll commonly find a Facebook ‘like’ button at the end of the article. When your browser is requesting this image, data is sent about the same unique cookie you have on your computer back to Facebook. Essentially, it lets Facebook know what you’re looking at, even if you’re logged out.”

According to Wilson, the notion that Facebook may eventually become publicly owned is potentially concerning.

“When they are finally pressured to go public, Facebook is just going to shove the users aside in favor of profits,” Wilson said.