April 18, 2021

As The World Frets Over Social Media Tracking For Advertising, Young People Are Turning Fooling Sites Into Sport

As the techlash continues to rage against tech and social media companies, one of the more common criticisms has been how sites track users in order to feed them advertising. Now, I won’t pretend to believe that these concerns are entirely unfounded. There is something creepy about all of this. That perception is also not helped by the opaque manner in which sites operate, nor the manner in which these sites often barely inform users of the tracking that is in place. Through it all, those that have the worst opinions of the internet and tech companies often couch their concerns in hand-wringing over how these sites handle younger users.

Except that, as per usual, younger users are way ahead of the adults. Rather than waiting to rely on some half-brained “for the children!” legislation, at least some youth are instead making a sport out of beating social media sites at their own game. The CNET post focuses on one teenager, Samantha Mosley, and her use of Instagram.

But unlike many of Instagram’s users, Mosley and her high school friends in Maryland had figured out a way to fool tracking by the Facebook-owned social network. On the first visit, her Explore tab showed images of Kobe Bryant. Then on a refresh, cooking guides, and after another refresh, animals. Each time she refreshed the Explore tab, it was a completely different topic, none of which she was interested in. That’s because Mosley wasn’t the only person using this account — it belonged to a group of her friends, at least five of whom could be on at any given time. Maybe they couldn’t hide their data footprints, but they could at least leave hundreds behind to confuse trackers.

These teenagers are relying on a sophisticated network of trusted Instagram users to post content from multiple different devices, from multiple different locations.

Here’s how this works. One person creates an Instagram account, or maybe more than one. Then that person requests a password reset and sends that link to a trusted friend without closing their own session. Now that both people have active sessions, person two begins uploading photos, which triggers Instagram’s tracking on this new device. Rinse and repeat and suddenly you’ve given Instagram, which assumes it is tracking one person, a ton of data from many people. The end result is the site has no real insight into the behavior of any one person. This can be further gamed by posting photos of people that are not those operating on the account. If these users are geographically disperse, that too adds confusing data for Instagram’s tracking.

“They might be like, ‘Hey, you posted from this hamburger place in Germany, maybe you like Germany, or hamburgers, or traveling, we’ll just throw everything at you,'” Mosley said. “We fluctuate who’s sending to what account. One week I might be sending to 17 accounts, and then the next week I only have four.”

Facebook said that this method was not against its policies, but didn’t recommend it to people because of security concerns.

So, why are these young people doing this? Part of it is something of a sport. The other part is a desire by young people for privacy. Despite all the concerns of the older generations, young people are better than average when it comes to being aware of how tech companies and social media sites are using their data, tracking them for advertising purposes, and all the rest. I imagine that part of this is these young people thumbing their noses at these companies thinking they will blindly allow this intrusion on their desired privacy.

Either way, even the adults who would instead like to go the regulation or legislative routes admit this is all fairly brilliant.

Teens shouldn’t have to go to those lengths to socialize privately on Instagram, said Liz O’Sullivan, technology director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

“I love that the younger generation is thinking along these lines, but it bothers me when we have to come up with these strategies to avoid being tracked,” O’Sullivan said. “She shouldn’t have to have these psyop [psychological operations] networks with multiple people working to hide her identity from Instagram. The platform should just have an account that works and lets people feel safe about being on social media.”

All well and good, but you can wish for that in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one fills up faster. Meanwhile, the kids are handling this just fine.
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