Instagram ad partner secretly sucked up and tracked millions of users locations and stories
Hyp3r, an apparently trusted marketing partner of Facebook and Instagram, has been secretly collecting and storing location and other data on millions of users, against the policies of the social networks, Business Insider reported today. It’s hard to see how it could do this for years without intervention by the platforms except if the latter were either ignorant or complicit.
After BI informed Instagram, the company confirmed that Hyp3r (styled HYP3R) had violated its policies and has now been removed from the platform. In a statement to TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed the report, saying:
HYP3R’s actions were not sanctioned and violate our policies. As a result, we’ve removed them from our platform. We’ve also made a product change that should help prevent other companies from scraping public location pages in this way.
The company started several years ago as a platform via which advertisers could target users attending a given event, like a baseball game or concert. It used Instagram’s official API to hoover up data originally, the kind of data-gathering that has been happening for years by unsavory firms in tech, most infamously Cambridge Analytica.
The idea of getting an ad because you’re at a ball game isn’t so scary, but if the company maintains a persistent record not just of your exact locations, but objects in your photos and types of places you visit, in order to combine that with other demographics and build a detailed shadow profile… well, that’s a little scary. And so Hyp3r’s business model evolved.
Unfortunately, the API was severely restricted in early 2018, limiting Hyp3r’s access to location and user data. Although there were unconfirmed reports that this led to layoffs at the company around the time, the company seems to have survived (and raised millions shortly afterwards) not by adapting its business model, but by sneaking around the apparently quite minimal barriers Instagram put in place to prevent location data from being scraped.
Some of this was done by taking advantage of Instagram’s Location pages, which would serve up public accounts visiting them to anyone who asked, logged in or not. (This was one of the features turned off today by Instagram.)
According to BI’s report, Hyp3r built tools to circumvent limitations on both location collection and saving of personal accounts’ stories — content meant to disappear after 24 hours. If a user posted anything at one of thousands of locations and regions monitored by Hyp3r, their data would be sucked up and added to their shadow profile.
To be clear, it only collected information from public stories and accounts. Naturally these people opted out of a certain amount of privacy by choosing a public account, but as the Cambridge Analytica case and others have shown, no one expects or should have to expect that their data is being secretly and systematically assembled into a personal profile by a company they’ve never heard of.
Facebook and Instagram, however, had definitely heard of Hyp3r. In fact, Hyp3r could until today be found in the official Facebook Marketing Partners directory, a curated list of companies it recommends for various tasks and services that advertisers might need.
And Hyp3r has been quite clear about what it is doing, though not about the methods by which it is doing it. It wasn’t a secret that the company was building profiles based around tracking locations and brands — that was presumably what Facebook listed it for. It was only when this report surfaced that Hyp3r had its Facebook Marketing Partner privileges rescinded.
For its part Hyp3r claims to be “compliant with consumer privacy regulations and social network Terms of Services,” and emphasized in a statement that it only accessed public data.
It’s unclear how Hyp3r could exist as a privileged member of Facebook’s stable of recommended companies and simultaneously be in such blatant violation of its policies. If these partners receive even cursory reviews of their products and methods, wouldn’t it have been obvious to any informed auditor that there was no legitimate source for the location and other data that Hyp3r was collecting? Wouldn’t it have been obvious that it was engaging in Automated Data Collection, which is specifically prohibited without Facebook’s permission?
I’ve asked Facebook for more detail on how and when its Marketing Partners are reviewed, and how this seemingly fundamental violation of the prohibition against automated data collection could have gone undetected for so long. This story is developing and may be updated further.