The spies that knew too much about Facebook's advertising network

Despite transparency push, the social network still scorns ad data aggregators


Analysis Facebook says it intends to make its advertising more transparent, but its efforts to prevent other companies from doing as much is keeping its ad ecosystem opaque.

In the course of its ongoing policy enforcement, the social ad giant has pressured several startups that provide data about the ads running on Facebook Pages and other websites – sometimes referred to ad analytics tools or ad spy services – to shut down.

In the past two years, sites like Adicted.io, BigBigAds.com, GameOver.Ninja, GoCompass.co, SpyAds.co, and WhichAdsWork.com have closed their doors, and not by choice.

"We want to thank you for your support, but unfortunately we have been forced to close our service permanently," explains a notice on BigBigAds.com that appeared last December.

Intelligence

Ad spy services gather data about online ad campaigns, often those run by competitors, and aggregate it as a source of business intelligence. Those buying ads (like affiliate marketers who get commissions from effective ads or sales that follow) can use this information to copy successful campaigns for their own benefit. That's the hope at least.

But Facebook sees these sites as scofflaws rather than sources of marketing illumination.

Facebook's policy enforcement hasn't affected every player in the market. Similar sites, like AdFox.io and PowerAdSpy.com, continue to operate. But if they're breaking Facebook's rules, it may only be a matter of time before the cease-and-desist notice arrives.

The Register asked representatives from some of these websites to discuss what happened but those who responded declined, citing legal concerns.

A marketing professional who corresponded with The Register and asked not to be named speculated that Facebook wants to hide historical ad data, as a way to avoid being held accountable for ads.

"Why force [ad spy sites] to stop operating instead of asking them to cooperate?" the marketer said, noting that some of these services made it easier to identify scam ads used to victimize Facebook users.

Scraping

Facebook declined to comment on specific cases but a spokesperson confirmed to The Register that some of these sites were scraping Facebook data from websites and apps and then charging clients for access to that data, in violation of the social network's policies.

Facebook is not alone in wanting to keep others' data to itself. In 2016 LinkedIn sued 100 unnamed individuals for harvesting user profiles with bots. One of those plaintiffs, HiQ, pushed back with a counter-suit and last year, a judge said LinkedIn had to allow the scraping of public data. The case is currently under appeal.

In an email to The Register, Augustine Fou, a cybersecurity and ad fraud researcher who runs ad consultancy Marketing Science, speculated that the shuttered sites likely relied on fake accounts maintained by botnets to scrape ad data, since Facebook ads are shown to logged in accounts.

Fou said he agreed with Facebook's decision to shut the sites down.

"I think the recent [Cambridge Analytica] data scandal has given them more reason to act more aggressively," he said. "Advertisers can use simple Facebook reporting to see how their ads worked. They don't need third-party scrapers like this.

But of course, Facebook opponents would be quick to blame them for not allowing third-party tracking, measurement, etc. And this fits with their worldview that Facebook is evil and is exercising undue market power." ®

Similar topics


Other stories you might like

  • Prisons transcribe private phone calls with inmates using speech-to-text AI

    Plus: A drug designed by machine learning algorithms to treat liver disease reaches human clinical trials and more

    In brief Prisons around the US are installing AI speech-to-text models to automatically transcribe conversations with inmates during their phone calls.

    A series of contracts and emails from eight different states revealed how Verus, an AI application developed by LEO Technologies and based on a speech-to-text system offered by Amazon, was used to eavesdrop on prisoners’ phone calls.

    In a sales pitch, LEO’s CEO James Sexton told officials working for a jail in Cook County, Illinois, that one of its customers in Calhoun County, Alabama, uses the software to protect prisons from getting sued, according to an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    Continue reading
  • Battlefield 2042: Please don't be the death knell of the franchise, please don't be the death knell of the franchise

    Another terrible launch, but DICE is already working on improvements

    The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. Since the last edition on New World, we hit level cap and the "endgame". Around this time, item duping exploits became rife and every attempt Amazon Games made to fix it just broke something else. The post-level 60 "watermark" system for gear drops is also infuriating and tedious, but not something we were able to address in the column. So bear these things in mind if you were ever tempted. On that note, it's time to look at another newly released shit show – Battlefield 2042.

    I wanted to love Battlefield 2042, I really did. After the bum note of the first-person shooter (FPS) franchise's return to Second World War theatres with Battlefield V (2018), I stupidly assumed the next entry from EA-owned Swedish developer DICE would be a return to form. I was wrong.

    The multiplayer military FPS market is dominated by two forces: Activision's Call of Duty (COD) series and EA's Battlefield. Fans of each franchise are loyal to the point of zealotry with little crossover between player bases. Here's where I stand: COD jumped the shark with Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. It's flip-flopped from WW2 to present-day combat and back again, tried sci-fi, and even the Battle Royale trend with the free-to-play Call of Duty: Warzone (2020), which has been thoroughly ruined by hackers and developer inaction.

    Continue reading
  • American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

    Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

    The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

    NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

    "Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021