Wednesday, 05 May 2021 11:21

Signal chief highlights how Facebook uses personal data to target ads Featured

One of the ads that Marlinspike created. One of the ads that Marlinspike created. Courtesy Signal

Hardly a month after he exposed the poor security in software deployed by Israeli mobile surveillance firm Cellebrite, Signal creator Moxie Marlinspike has taken a potshot at Facebook's practices of collecting personal data.

In a blog post, Marlinspike, whose real name is Matthew Rosenfeld, said he had taken an Instagram ad account in order to show the degree of visibility that companies like Facebook had into users' lives.

"[Companies like Facebook] collect everything they can from FB, Instagram, and WhatsApp in order to sell visibility into people and their lives," Marlinspike said.

"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."

He said the way most of the Internet worked would be considered intolerable "if translated into comprehensible real-world analogs, but it endures because it is invisible".


Some other ads that Marlinspike created.

Marlinspike said Facebook’s own tools could divulge what was otherwise unseen. "It’s already possible to catch fragments of these truths in the ads you’re shown; they are glimmers that reflect the world of a surveilling stranger who knows you. We wanted to use those same tools to directly highlight how most technology works."

To this end, he created a multi-variant targeted ad which would show the personal data that Facebook collects and sells access to.

"The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea," he explained.


Marlinspike's Instagram account was shut down after he tried to run the ads. All screenshots courtesy Moxie Marlinspike

Facebook was willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it was to tell people about how their data was being used, Marlinspike said.

"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."

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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