A serious reality check this week for Facebook’s 2.5 billion-plus users. Suddenly, the shockingly personal information the tech giant holds on you cannot be ignored. You may have dismissed the dangers of data harvesting and tracking—but not any more. Worse, behind this week’s stark exposure, there’s a much more serious warning.
In a devilishly clever attack, as first reported on Forbes, Signal weaponized Facebook’s data harvesting this week to attack the tech giant, using targeting criteria in a series of proposed ads. Yes, the story made headlines—but almost all the coverage missed the most serious point. Behind the detail is a warning and a reason to delete Facebook.
Signal says Facebook disabled its account—Facebook denies this. Facebook says Signal never intended to run the ads—Signal denies that. Media coverage has focused on this war of words back and forth—who’s lying, who’s telling the truth? In fact, both are likely being truthful, and that will help explain how dangerous Facebook has become.
The proposed ads themselves may appear frivolous: “You got this ad because you’re a newlywed pilates instructor and you’re cartoon crazy, because you’re a K-pop loving chemical engineer, because you’re a teacher and a Leo.” But they also cut deeper: “You’re single or divorced or in an open relationship; you’re thinking about LGBTQ adoption; this ad thinks you do drag.”
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Just after the initial story, Facebook told me that “if Signal had tried to run the ads, a couple of them would have been rejected because our advertising policies prohibit ads that assert that you have a specific medical condition or sexual orientation.”
And that’s the critical point here. There has never really been this level of publicity over whether an advertiser can publish ad targeting criteria in the actual ad—but it has been done before. That’s not why this was stopped. So, when Facebook says it would let the ads run without data that violates its policies, it’s believable. After the public spat with Signal, Facebook pointed me to its tweets to clarify this exact position.
But it’s obvious the sensitive data in Signal’s ads will violate Facebook’s polices—that misses the point. When Signal says Facebook is collecting everything it can “in order to sell visibility into people and their lives,” that this would be “considered intolerable” if it was not “invisible,” it’s referring to this kind of private, sensitive data that we want to keep hidden, not the superfluous stuff we might include in our public profiles.
Facebook’s data harvesting machine can capture and infer sexual, medical, political and religious information. And while advertisers can’t tell their audience the basis on which they have been targeted if it’s this kind of data, that doesn’t mean it’s not being done—just as we saw with recent reports that “Facebook allows advertisers to target children interested in smoking, alcohol and weight loss.”
Facebook says Signal contravened its advertising policy, which prohibits ads that include “assertions or implications about a person’s race, ethnic origin, religion, beliefs, age, sexual orientation or practices, gender identity, disability, medical condition (including physical or mental health), financial status, voting status, membership in a trade union, criminal record or name.”
Just because you can’t see the data, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And this is what Signal means when it says Facebook “has the potential to divulge what is otherwise unseen. It’s already possible to catch fragments of these truths in the ads you’re shown; glimmers that reflect the world of a surveilling stranger who knows you.”
The key fact that has been missed is that these ads could never run. Whether Signal tried to post the ads or not is irrelevant. The impactful ones would have been rejected. If you take the sensitive data out of these ads, they lose their impact. The only way Signal could show the invasive nature of Facebook’s data was doing exactly what it has done, generating publicity to expose the data fields you’ll never explicitly see.
Signal acknowledges this, telling me after the back and forth with Facebook on Twitter that “we tried to run these ads and Facebook disabled our account—Facebook says it’s for one reason or another, but the fact remains they’ve clearly said they would still reject these ads if we tried to run them again. We’d love to run them if they’d let us.”
But Signal knows that could never happen, not without watering down the ads and losing most of their impact. Ultimately, this is also the issue with privacy labels and tracking transparency. It doesn’t hit home. That’s why most users remain indifferent to such tracking, even going so far as to say it can be useful in serving them relevant ads. It has taken Apple mandating a proactive tracking opt-in to generate a response.
Most assume that the data collected by Facebook and others is broadly harmless, albeit personally identifiable. But it isn’t. When we warn that you should disable tracking and select apps that respect your privacy, it’s because the invasive nature of data harvesting is harmful, even if that’s behind the scenes, shaping your feed, influencing what you see. As Signal says, “this isn’t exactly a secret, but the full picture is hazy to most—dimly concealed within complex, opaquely-rendered systems and fine print designed to be scrolled past… it endures because it is invisible.”
Facebook has a policy that prevents advertisers “including direct or indirect assertions or implications” against that list of “personal attributes.” But that doesn’t mean you can’t use the data, that you can’t target people based on all those sensitive criteria, it just means you need to hide that fact from those users.
Facebook’s own policy sets this out. You can target black singles with “find black singles today,” but not with “meet other black singles near you.” Similarly, “looking for Buddhists near you?” is fine, but “meet other Buddhists” is not, just as “come and meet transgender singles” is okay, but “questioning your gender identity?” is not.
The underlying data is the same, of course, it’s just how you use it. Facebook’s worked examples take advertisers through race, religion and philosophical beliefs, age, sexual orientation and sexual behavior, gender identity, disability and medical conditions, financial status, voting status, membership in a trade union, even criminal records. Is that enough to convince you, that you be targeted using that kind of data?
This isn’t the banal age-group, employment, location and shopping habits as often presented. This is a dataset on each of you that beats what most intel agencies could put together. This, and others like it, are the most valuable datasets in the world today. Much of the data in those same datasets is inferred, of course, from browsing, social graphs, comparisons with billions of other users to mine patterns.
Signal’s campaign has focused on advertising, this data being put up for sale in as much as it can be used to pinpoint target an audience. But remember, this is the same data used to fuel an algorithm to keep you engaged, to design the echo chamber feeds we see online, increasing our time online, during which we can be fed ever more ads.
The issue isn’t the advertising, the issue is the data collection. The use of that data to shape our social media experience is much more dangerous, especially for the young and the vulnerable. The reason we find it difficult to switch off is that platforms are specifically designed, using our own data, to make it difficult to switch off.
This is why we warn you to disable location tracking and to beware extensive privacy labels and app permissions and cross-store browser tracking.
Most of you won’t delete Facebook, in fact, most of you will likely not change your behaviors much at all. It’s this that Facebook depends upon to keep posting profit and stock price growth. The danger, though, is that we are clearly not voting with our feet. If you do decide enough is enough, then my Straight Talking Cyber colleague, Kate O’Flaherty, has put together an excellent guide on how to cut your ties.
This is a pivotal year for privacy. And so, take some thought over what you share. And bear in mind that it isn’t just what you put on Facebook that counts. The entire digital marketing industry and all those ad trackers feed the very same invaluable machine run by Facebook and Google and others. This is now everywhere.
Now, the impetus to delete Facebook or to severely cut down the data that’s collected and the tracking that takes place has never been more critical. Over to you.