Tech

Signal’s banned ads show just how personal Facebook’s data collection gets

Banned or not, that's a pretty smart marketing campaign on Signal's part.

The Signal encrypted messaging application icon is seen on an iPhone home screen in Warsaw, Poland on March 3, 2021. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Give the marketing folks at Signal a raise. The company says it recently tried to buy ads on Instagram revealing to users the personal information Facebook knows about them. Its advertising account was swiftly suspended.

Signal, which makes a popular encrypted messaging app, didn’t specify in its blog post whether Facebook provided an explanation for the ban.

Marketing genius — The social media company comes off badly whether the ads stayed up or not. If the ads were approved, users would have seen clearly the extent of personal information Facebook has on them. But being blocked looks even worse, as if the company is trying to cover something up.

One of the ads Signal tried to run on Instagram. The advertisement was automatically filled with the specific targeting data used. Signal

It’s possible, probable even, that people would be fine exchanging some amount of data for free services like Instagram. But Facebook has such a complex data collection apparatus that people are distrusting of it. It’s hard to understand exactly what Facebook knows about you, or how to navigate its complex settings and control what it’s collecting.

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

Tracking — It’s not unfounded to be worried about what Facebook collects either. The company, and others like it, have spent years perfecting targeting technology to the point that it’s highly sophisticated. Target once figured out a teen girl was pregnant before she knew, for instance, and Facebook has surmised users were gay before they told anyone.

Facebook’s data collection practices recently came under fire by Apple, which released an update to iOS that makes tracking more difficult. iOS 14.5 requires developers ask permission to track a user, important for a company like Facebook because tracking helps it build user profiles and measure ad effectiveness. It’s unclear how much Facebook might be affected by the change, but it brings in tens of billions each quarter and has suggested it will find workarounds.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued that tracking allows Facebook to offer free services to a global audience, whereas Apple is self-serving because it sells expensive iPhones on the premise it isn’t collecting data. That may be true, but it’s also not wrong that Facebook deceives people into giving up more about themselves than they’d knowingly consent to, and then treats the data with a lack of care. Facebook’s existence has been defined by a dearth of forethought into how its products might be used for ill.

Signal saw a huge boost in downloads earlier this year after Facebook-owned WhatsApp said it would begin sharing more information with Big Blue. The company did so in an effort to unify its messaging apps, a move some speculate is intended to make it harder for users to leave its ecosystem.