Signal vs. Facebook: The Privacy Battle

In an attempt to illustrate the data collected by Facebook and Instagram, Signal created an ad campaign. The ads were never shown, though, and the reason depends on who you ask.

Most people today are aware that websites collect data on users. They may not fully understand how tracking cookies work, and they might not fully understand what information is being disclosed to websites. Once these companies have your data, as long as they disclose to you that they do this, they can sell your information to third-party affiliates or partners. Those partners can then cater ads specifically to you to entice you to use their product. The complexities of ad tracking are intricate and tangled, which is why Signal, a third-party messaging app, attempted to illustrate the data collected and sold by Instagram and Facebook.

Signal prides itself on how little data it collects on its users. According to the first portion of its privacy policy, “Signal is designed to never collect or store any sensitive information. Signal messages and calls cannot be accessed by us or other third parties because they are always end-to-end encrypted, private, and secure.”

Privacy is a hot topic of late, and it’s widely known that Facebook sells the data it collects on its users to third-party sites. Users, however, don’t always know what information is even being collected, let alone how it’s used. To illustrate this, Signal created a series of Instagram ads. Because Instagram is owned by Facebook, they use the same tools, and Signal’s ads were created using Facebook’s own atdetch. Apparently, Facebook wasn’t too keen on this idea and allegedly blocked the ads from being shared. From Signal’s blog post:

“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.”

The blog post includes embedded photos of the ads that would have been used to show users what information is collected. The ads read, “You’re seeing this ad because you’re a ____ and you’re (insert relationship status or favorite activity). This ad used your location to see you’re in ___. You’re into (insert hobby/area of interest) and (insert recent activity interest here).” Each ad would have been personalized to the user viewing it. But, while this would have opened the eyes of many users, alas, these ads never saw the light of day.

Per Gizmodo, Facebook’s response is typical of the social media giant. “This is a stunt by Signal, who never even tried to actually run these ads — and we didn’t shut down their ad account for trying to do so,” Facebook said. “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, as Signal should know. But of course, running the ads was never their goal — it was about getting publicity.”

Facebook obviously isn’t a fan of transparency into its system, but users should really take heed and educated themselves on what data is collected on them and how that data is used. While this is important for consumers, it’s equally important for businesses, especially if they have a social media presence on any platform. Every platform you use will collect information, and you should be aware of what information is being collected. You should know how that information is being stored, if and what is being shared, which other companies is it being shared with and do you want them to have that information.

Data privacy is a big deal and it matters. Big tech companies, social media giants, etc. have a lot of power over adtech right now because there are few regulations. Third-party cookies are going by the wayside, but you can believe marketers and companies around the world are searching for a solution to continuing to collect and share data. Make sure your data, the data of your company and its clients/employees is safe. Know what is being shared and where it’s being shared, and if you can limit the data that is collected, take steps to do so.

About the Author

Pieter VanIperen, Managing Partner of PWV Consultants, leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries that acts as trusted technical partners for many Fortune 500 companies, high-visibility startups, universities, defense agencies, and NGOs. He is a 20-year software engineering veteran, who founded or co-founder several companies. He acts as a trusted advisor and mentor to numerous early stage startups, and has held the titles of software and software security executive, consultant and professor. His expert consulting and advisory work spans several industries in finance, media, medical tech, and defense contracting. Has also authored the highly influential precursor HAZL (jADE) programming language.

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