The Most Devastating Pixel on The Internet
05 Apr 2019
Facebook is tracking you on over 8.4 million websites… and there’s very little any of us do about it.
It all comes down to the most powerful pixel on the planet… The Facebook Pixel.
I hear you… “how can a simple pixel be so consequential?”
Companies want to optimize their advertising. They want to “retarget” people who have visited their site once and left. And they want to target new people who look similar to their existing customers.
To make this happen, companies put the Facebook Pixel on their webpages. This means that, out of the thousands of other more colourful pixels on their site, one particularly special one of them is being “powered” by Facebook.
The code for such a pixel is very simple. It looks like this, and you’ll see it scattered on millions of websites across the internet:
What happens next is where the ambiguous, uninformed, and unconsented trick is played.
A cookie is dropped. On your browser. A little sticky-note that’s stuck to your back. On its own, it says something simple, like [User ID: 0725]. But when Facebook sees it, they make a little note of their own - something like:
[User ID: 0725; looking at flights to Barcelona]
When you visit another site, Facebook see that same little sticky note again. So - then it gets worse. Much worse.
You keep going about your day… browsing the internet, planning your next holiday, or looking at gifts for a friend, or a new job, or a new house, or reading up on that awkward medical condition you’re worried you might have contracted overnight.
Facebook keeps seeing the cookie on your back as you go - each time they make a new note. Before you know it, all these notes are sitting in Facebook’s office.
[User ID: 0725; wants to go to Barcelona in April] [User ID: 0725; looking for a new job in health care] [User ID: 0725; freqeuently buying hiking gear] [User ID: 0725; interested in lifestyle blogs] [User ID: 0725; wants to go to the cinema on Friday night]
But who’s User ID 0725? They’re anonymous. So… does it really matter?
Well here’s the scary part.
At the end of the day, you get home from work and check your Facebook to see what your friends have been up to. You go to facebook.com and you login - writing in your email and password…. with a sticky note on your back.
💥 BAM 💥
Facebook’s got you.
User ID 0725 is you.
In making this simple action, you’ve tied your anonymous, sticky-noted identity to your real, Facebook identity. And Facebook doesn’t forget. You can remove the note, but Facebook doesn’t care about “User 0725” anymore - they’ve already moved all of that data to their records about you.
They’ll simply start the process again.
So they have a picture of you and what you’re thinking. They know you want to go to Barcelona, that you’re looking for a career move, that you’re interested in hiking and that you want to go to the cinema this weekend. But it doesn’t stop there.
Over the years, you’ve uploaded hundreds of photos to Facebook, you spend all day speaking to family and friends on Messenger, and you have a quick browse of Instagram every hour searching #barcelona.
Facebook has a scarily accurate picture of who you are. Who you’re related to, who your closest friends are, what you like to do in your spare time (and what time of day and day of week), everything that you’re interested in, and everything you’re not. Which parties were you invited to? To which were you not?
All this information — in one place — is valuable. Extremely valuable. This is why Facebook is the most successful advertising company in the world - turning $40 billion in revenue in 2017. They sell the dirt on you to corporations willing to buy it and influence your decisions - perhaps to purchase things, perhaps to vote candidate B in the next election.
This is why it’s manipulation on unprecedented levels. And this is why we should be concerned with what’s happening on the internet. Not just because what’s happening, but because it’s happening with a massive lack of awareness in order to exploit us.
The internet needs more transparency. People deserve to know what’s happening and have the simple choice to say to yes or no.
It’s not the most difficult thing in the world. So let’s make it happen.