Is Facebook Messenger tracking me?

Conversation with my wife:

Me: Have you got ads showing up in your Facebook Messenger conversations?
Wife: No. Why?
Me: Well, I’ve got one here… “Jan’s fitness studio”
Wife (what she should have said): Well you could do with losing a few pounds.
Wife (what she actually said): Well, you were near there the other day.

At which point I practically shat myself.

We all know how much everything and everyone is tracking us nowadays. Targeted ads/suggestions/everything based on your habits and interests are one thing; but the GPS chip in your phone have taken that to the next level to (try and) offer really targeted locally relevant information. But the privacy issue surrounding this has garnered a great deal of attention in terms of what is acceptable and what isn’t. And there has always been a big response from the major players in terms of (trying to) demonstrating they’re squeaky clean when it comes to tracking and handling data.

Facebook Messenger received a lot of negative publicity a couple of years ago when a new version of Messenger had location tracking enabled by default. They quickly back-tracked and reversed this but the damage was done. On a scale of 0 to full-on tinfoil hat, I’d say I’m just above ‘moderate’ when it comes to protecting my privacy. I will always lock down settings so that I’m prompted for use of my data and will instantly be suspicious of any app that is asking for access to more things than it really needs, and by default location services is ‘on’ but ‘off’ for all apps – i.e. they need to ask me if it’s OK. On an iPhone running a reasonably recent version of iOS, I can’t see any specific settings for Messenger but location for Facebook is definitely off.

I must admit, I didn’t think too much of seeing a sponsored advert in Messenger. It seemed inevitable it would happen, and nowadays we’ve probably become desensitised to seeing adverts. (Either that or you’re using an ad blocker.)

BUT. And it’s a HUGE BUT(T)… why did I see that particular advert?

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to review the ‘Why am I seeing this advert’ properties of Jan’s specific advert before it changed to a new one. But by looking at the one that followed – for a local recruitment company – it said a fairly generic ‘xxx wants to reach people aged 18 and older who live in Guernsey.’ Well, that’s hardly targeted, that makes the audience 50k+ people at a guess; but it’s conceivable that Jan’s advert had something as equally vague.

Looking more at ‘how Facebook shows ads’ it says how mostly it’s based on your interests – pages you’ve liked, stuff you’ve posted, and so on. OK.

But… and this is the tin-foil hat moment, quite literally 3 days ago I was physically (geographically) close to Jan’s Fitness studio. Not actually there, but next door.

Having dabbled in Facebook ads before, one thing I do know is that if you do have very broad targeting settings you

a) get a very poor response and
b) spend a lot more cash.

The power in the targeting options available to you is that you can limit what you spend by really tailoring your potential audience to the service you’re providing and trying to maximise engagement.

So if you’re a recruitment company then maybe you don’t want to limit yourself – you want to hit as many people as possible who may possibly be looking for a new job. But if you’re someone offering a specialist service – such as a, say, fitness studio – then my feeling is you’re going to want to really narrow in on people who are likely to be interested.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing in my ad preferences (in terms of my ‘likes’) that would naturally make me a good fit (no pun intended) for a fitness studio. So maybe it’s just pure demographics or Jan just doesn’t know how to target adverts properly.

But damn is it hard to avoid the feeling that seeing that advert 3 days after I was literally next door to that location is not just a massive cowinkidink and that instead, Facebook Messenger is tracking my location, even though, as far as I can tell, it absolutely does not have the permission to do so.

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