Secure messaging application firm Signal just highlighted how much data Facebook collects about its users in a clever piece of media hacking.
Signal, which prides itself on not tracking its users, set out to demonstrate to Facebook users how much data they're giving up.
The company created an ad campaign on Instagram using the Facebook-owned photo and messaging app's multi-variant ad targeting system. This uses the detailed profiles Facebook builds about its users to deliver them appropriate advertisements. Instead of using this targeted demographic data to sell products to a carefully segmented demographic, Signal designed the advertisements to tell recipients what Facebook knew about it explicitly.
"The way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into comprehensible real world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible," the company said when explaining the project.
Examples of the ads included: "You got this ad because you're a K-pop-loving chemical engineer. This ad used your location to see you're in Berlin. And you have a new baby. And just moved. And you're really feeling those pregnancy exercises lately."
Other examples Signal posted identified users’ marital status, including a recent divorce, and more nuanced situations like being in an open relationship. Ads also relayed recent purchases and new hobbies. They also called out the kinds of content that specific Instagram users like to read online.
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According to Signal, Facebook disallowed the ad campaign. "Being transparent about how ads use people's data is apparently enough to get banned; in Facebook's world, the only acceptable usage is to hide what you're doing from your audience," it continued.
This media hack is another small blow in Facebook's ongoing battle against privacy advocates. In March, the US Supreme Court rejected Facebook’s appeal to scale back a $15 billion class-action lawsuit accusing it of illegally tracking its users' activity.
Facebook is also involved in an ongoing spat with Apple, which has introduced privacy changes in iOS 14 that give users an opt-in prompt to enable in-app tracking. Facebook responded by inserting messages in its app that guide users to opt in.
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Danny Bradbury has been a print journalist specialising in technology since 1989 and a freelance writer since 1994. He has written for national publications on both sides of the Atlantic and has won awards for his investigative cybersecurity journalism work and his arts and culture writing.
Danny writes about many different technology issues for audiences ranging from consumers through to software developers and CIOs. He also ghostwrites articles for many C-suite business executives in the technology sector and has worked as a presenter for multiple webinars and podcasts.