Thursday, June 30

These are the creepy ads Facebook doesn’t want you to see

It’s no secret that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp collect a fair amount of user data. But how much exactly? TO new blog post from the makers of Signal, the open source secure messaging platform, shows that it is quite a lot.

“You got this ad because you’re a newlywed Pilates instructor and you’re crazy about cartoons,” reads an ad that Signal had planned to post on Instagram. «This ad used your location to indicate that you are in La Jolla [a San Diego suburb]. You like parenting blogs and you are thinking about LGBTQ adoption.

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“You received this ad because you are a goth barista and single,” reads another possible ad. «This ad used your location to indicate that you are on Clinton Hill [a Brooklyn neighborhood]. And you’re vegan or lactose intolerant and you’re really feeling that yoga lately.

Signal planned to run these Instagram ads targeting people who fit those specific profiles, and scare them with how specific each ad was.

(Image credit: Signal)

“The ad would simply show some of the information collected about the viewer using the advertising platform,” explained Jun Harada of Signal at the Signal blog post Tuesday (May 4).

Unfortunately, Harada added, “Facebook disagreed with that idea” and Signal’s Facebook ad account was disabled.

(Image credit: Signal)

It’s a shame, because as Harada explained in the blog post, “the way most of the internet works today would be considered intolerable if translated into understandable real-world analogues, but it endures because it’s invisible.”

“Facebook’s own tools have the potential to disclose what might not otherwise be seen,” he added. “We wanted to use those same tools to directly highlight how most technology works.”

We ourselves did not understand very well what was happening here. Was Facebook collecting information on specific people and then delivering it to advertisers? So we called Harada (on Signal, of course) to get more information.

He explained to us that it is the other way around. Facebook has a tool called Facebook Ads Manager which you can try to use yourself.

It allows you to create ad campaigns targeting very specific demographic groups and interests, for example, women ages 25-35 who like country music, mountain biking, and liberal politics. Or it can get even more granular, as evidenced by the ads Signal wanted to run.

(Image credit: Facebook)

Basically, Harada told us, you can use Facebook’s Ads Manager to create your ideal target persona. Facebook will find real people who come close to matching that ideal person and send them your ads.

You can create a target audience based on location, interests, marital status, hobbies, activities, ethnicity, education level, number of children, jobs, and at least in the United States , politics.

(Image credit: Facebook)

So it’s not quite as creepy as Facebook pulling out all the details about you or me as individuals and sending them out to advertisers. Advertisers never see your real data. But it’s still pretty jarring to read ads that seem made specifically for you.

Or, at least, it would have been if Facebook had allowed Signal to go ahead with those Instagram ad purchases.

Ironically, Harada noted in the blog post, “being transparent about how ads use people’s data is apparently enough to get banned” from Facebook’s ad platform.

“In the world of Facebook,” he added, “the only acceptable use is to hide what you’re doing from your audience.”

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