WhatsApp-rival Signal tried to expose Facebook’s targeted advertising business model, here’s what happened next

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Updated: May 07, 2021 2:43 PM

The post, titled 'The Instagram ads Facebook won't show you', states that Signal created multi-variant targeted ads that showed exactly the extent of data that the social media giant collected.

Signal used Facebook and Instagram's shared adtech tools. (Image: Signal graphic)

Facebook targeted ads: The fact that targeted ads on Facebook and its services make use of user data is known to almost everyone. It is no secret, and the tech giant has also been involved in numerous controversies regarding the same. It is also regularly targeted by other tech companies for this policy. Now, Signal, the end-to-end encrypted open-source messaging platform has also attacked the Mark Zuckerberg owned company for user data it collects and allegedly sells to third parties. In a blog post, the WhatsApp competitor has claimed that it bought ads on Facebook-owned Instagram to demonstrate the extent to which user data is collected by these services and how it is used for targeted advertising.

The post, titled ‘The Instagram ads Facebook won’t show you’, states that Signal created multi-variant targeted ads that showed exactly the extent of data that the social media giant collected. The idea behind the ads was simple. Signal used Facebook and Instagram’s shared adtech tools. It created ads that targeted users based on several types of data, ranging from basic information like their location, to extremely specific data like their hobbies, new purchases, or educational qualifications. The ads had a template wherein their specific details were filled using the data that Instagram and Facebook collected.

Also read | Thinking of switching from WhatsApp to Signal? Here’s everything you need to keep in mind

The only difference in these ads from the ones that usually run on these two platforms is that while other products use these data points to target their ads, privacy-positive Signal created a template that simply informed the users exactly what attribute of theirs caused them to be targeted for that ad.

However, apparently, this did not bode well with Facebook, which banned the messaging platform’s Instagram account for trying to run these ads, Signal has claimed.

A major portion of Facebook’s revenue comes from the targeted ads business, which has come under scrutiny after the Cambridge Analytica scandal made headlines a few years ago. And due to this high stake that Facebook has placed on this business model, it is not surprising that it may be quite sensitive to any threat that other tech companies pose to it in this regard. Facebook has denied Signal’s claims, calling them a “stunt” even as Signal remained firm on its allegations.

Regardless, Facebook’s data collection ways have been under the scanner for a while now, and conversations around this aspect have only grown louder after Apple joined them.

Last year, after Apple announced the release of its iOS 14 that would only allow Facebook to collect user data from iOS devices after obtaining explicit user permission, Facebook began a smear campaign against Cupertino by publishing full page ads that claimed that Apple was against small businesses, which Facebook claimed benefited greatly from this model. However, in recent years, users have been more vocal about their data being collected without their permission, and this led to Signal’s popularity skyrocketing earlier this year after Facebook-owned WhatsApp updated its privacy policy bringing changes to how individuals interacted with businesses.

Also read | Facebook is upset with Apple because new iOS update allows iPhone users to opt out of tracking

This move can also be seen as Signal’s attempt to take on WhatsApp more openly. WhatsApp’s controversial privacy policy is set to come into effect this month (on May 15), and it is troublesome because even despite mass outrage, the Facebook-owned instant messaging platform has not given users the choice to opt out of the update, strongarming them into accepting the policy by making their accounts dysfunctional if they do not “choose” to agree to the updated terms. The timing of this blogpost could be seen as some last-moment efforts to remind people of the Signal vs WhatsApp situation that erupted earlier this year after tech mogul Elon Musk asked people to switch to the privacy-oriented messaging platform.

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