Facebook and Instagram gathering browsing data from under-18s, study says

Parent company Meta denies data being used to target young users with ads based on their browsing activity

Facebook and Instagram are gathering data from under-18s by using software that tracks users’ web browsing activity, according to research.

The platforms’ parent company had announced in July that it would allow advertisers to target young users based on three categories only – age, gender and location – rather than a range of options including their personal interests.

However, research by a trio of campaign groups states that Facebook and Instagram have retained the use of software, known as conversion APIs, that gathers details of teens’ web browsing activities.

Facebook and Instagram’s owner, Meta, denied the data was being used by the the company’s algorithm-driven ad delivery system to serve adverts on users who are under 18.

The data gathering was flagged in research by environmental group Global Action Plan, Reset Australia, which seeks reform of large tech companies, and Fairplay, which campaigns against marketing to children.

In an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, 44 advocacy groups urged the Facebook founder to scrap the data gathering, saying that it was being used to enable “surveillance advertising” for young users.

It added: “Replacing ‘targeting selected by advertisers’ with ‘optimisation selected by a machine learning delivery system’ does not represent a demonstrable improvement for children, despite Facebook’s claims in July. Facebook is still using the vast amount of data it collects about young people in order to determine which children are most likely to be vulnerable to a given ad.”

The letter’s signatories include 5Rights, which campaigns for tighter online controls for children in the UK, and the US-based Center for Digital Democracy.

The Facebook study set up three fake accounts, for a 13-year-old and two 16-year-olds, and researchers were able to view the data harvested by the company’s software across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, as the “users” visited sites such as local newspapers and clothing retailers.

The researchers found: “Facebook can collect data from other browser tabs and pages that children open, and harvest information like which buttons they click on, which terms they search or products they purchase or put in their basket (‘conversions’). There is no reason to store this sort of conversion data, except to fuel the ad delivery system.”

Joe Osborne, a Meta spokesperson, said: “It’s wrong to say that because we show data in our transparency tools it’s automatically used for ads. We don’t use data from our advertisers’ and partners’ websites and apps to personalize ads to people under 18.

“The reason this information shows up in our transparency tools is because teens visit sites or apps that use our business tools. We want to provide transparency into the data we receive, even if it’s not used for ads personalisation.”


Dan Milmo Global technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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