Reset Australia is demanding greater data protections for teenagers after it uncovered a Facebook loophole that allows teenagers to be profiled and targeted with advertising based on a range of age inappropriate interests, such as alcohol, smoking, gambling, and extreme weight loss.
Facebook builds profiles based on interests, and then sells access to these profiles to advertisers for direct, targeted advertising. While underage Facebook users can not be served alcohol, cigarette or gambling ads specifically, in a new report Reset Australia finds a loophole which allows underage profiles to be targeted based on these illicit interests.
Reset Australia found it costs advertisers $127 to target 1000 underage profiles with an interest in smoking, $38 to target 1000 underage profiles interested in extreme weight loss, and just $3 to target 1000 an underage profiles interested in alcohol.
“Facebook appears to use teenagers’ data in the same way as adults,” said Chris Cooper, executive director Reset Australia, the local affiliate of a global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy across the world."
Cooper added: “Reset Australia found Facebook allows advertisers to target teenage profiles based on a range of questionable interests - from smoking, gambling, and alcohol to dating status.
“The highly targeted nature of this advertising is different to incidental viewing of advertising. A school bus with a beer ad on the side of it can’t pick a kid interested in underage drinking and then follow them throughout their day. But a targeted, granular ad will be in their phone, monitoring their activities and ready to target them every time they use social media.”
Reset Australia says it ran a controlled experiment to see what oversight Facebook has over this underage profiling, and found “Facebook greenlit content targeted at teenagers which included vaping, cocktail recipes, political extremism and Q-Anon references, extreme weight loss, and adult dating. Reset Australia never published these ads.”
Cooper continued: “We found Facebook approved a series of dubious ads, which included targeting teenagers with cocktail recipes, gambling games, vaping and extreme weight loss.
“This opens a can of worms about just how Facebook profits from underage data, and exactly what protection they have against inappropriate targeting.
“Should a 13-year-old who lists their single status be getting targeted ads for a sugar daddy dating service? Should a 15-year-old profiled as interested in alcohol see ads that suggest cocktail recipes based on their parent's alcohol cabinet? Do we want 16-year-olds to have ads about gambling or political extremism targeted at them?
“Social media was never designed to factor in child protection. We need some ground rules to protect how young people's data is collected and used, especially given we don't know the long term ramifications of unchecked data harvesting.
“Teenagers can't opt out of data gathering, but they also can’t meaningfully consent to it being used. Granular targeted advertising highlights just one way data is being used, but we have no idea how data collected from a teenager now will be used in the future.”
Reset Australia says it is advocating for a data code for children as part of the federal government’s privacy review. If adopted, this would see social media giants and technology compelled to be designed with the interests of children in mind. It would include great data controls for young people and limit targeted commercial advertising.
“Australia needs a regulatory code governing how children and young people’s data is collected and used. Other countries have already implemented or proposed similar codes, including the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code, and Ireland’s Fundamentals for a Child-Oriented Approach to Data Processing,” Cooper concluded.