Signal Trolls Facebook With Cringeworthy Instagram Ads And Alarming Privacy Revelations

Facebook knows an awful lot about you, more so than it wants to let on. Sure, it is common knowledge that Facebook sells user data so advertisers can deliver targeted pitches—look up something in your browser and it won't be long before ads for similar items appear on your feed—but have you ever stopped to consider just how much Facebook knows about your likes and tendencies? The developers of Signal, a cross-platform encrypted messaging app (the same outfit that hacked the Cellebrite tool police use to crack iOS and Android phones), shared the kind of insight that is available to advertisers, prompting Facebook to ban their ad account.

Signal tried using Instagram ads to show examples of data Facebook culls about its users and sells to third parties. Here are a few of them, with certain keywords highlighted...

Signal Ads From Facebook Data
Click to Enlarge (Source: Signal)

Tech savvy users might not be shocked at the kind of data Facebook collects and sells, but the average user could find this level of insight into their personalities and actions more than a bit startling. And certainly Facebook does not want this kind of transparency out in the open, hence why it banned Signal's ad account after it tried to post these ads on Instagram.

"Companies like Facebook aren’t building technology for you, they’re building technology for your data. They collect everything they can from FB, Instagram, and WhatsApp in order to sell visibility into people and their lives," Signal states in a blog post.

"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. 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," Signal adds.

Signal's Facebook Ads
Click to Enlarge (Source: Signal)

Invisibility is a good point. It falls into the 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' category. Think about the food you eat—the salty chips and bacon, and other junk food. If you had see-through skin and arteries to give a clear view of the plaque build-up as it's occurring, you might eat healthier. But it's invisible in real-time, and so eating unhealthy endures (or maybe it's just me).

As Signal points out, however, Facebook's tools can divulge to advertisers what is otherwise unseen to the masses. When I read the blog post, a point that hit home was Signal calling Facebook a "surveilling stranger who knows you," presenting glimmers of your world through targeted advertising.

"Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it’s to tell people about how their data is being used. 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," Signal says.

In the blocked ads that Signal shared on its blog, we see the different ways advertisers can target users, based on things like whether or not they are in a relationship, what kinds of activities they are into, their location, a person's education level, and so on.

The truth is, Facebook's algorithm is highly advanced, and this is just a small glimpse into how it can leverage user data for financial gain. To share an anecdotal account, my step-daughter in Michigan came down for a visit with her mother and I in Tennessee a while back. During her stay, she showed us her Furbo app—essentially a pet camera that lets you see and talk to your pets from afar, and even eject treats.

Almost immediately after, I began to see Furbo ads on my Facebook feed. My assumption is Facebook took into consideration her proximity to us (we're connected on Facebook) and perhaps detected she opened up the Furbo app while close by. Neither of us performed any web searches for Furbo during her visit, so there had to be some other way Facebook determined I was a target for that kind of ad. Clever and alarming at the same time.

None of this is to say you should delete Facebook from your phone and steer clear of the social network. I happen to enjoy staying in touch with distant friends and family members, and seeing their goofy photos, as well as sharing my own. But it is to say you should think carefully about what you put out there. It's also telling that Facebook doesn't want the public at large to have this kind of insight into how it operates, which speaks to a lack of transparency.

The last thing I'll say is, if you haven't already, watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. It's a bit sensationalized, but also shines a light on that invisible layer of social media we tend to ignore.