It appears that Facebook is not only tracking people’s porn-watching behavior online but also the photos they download. A researcher has found Facebook trackers in several images that he downloaded that could potentially point out to one thing: Facebook is tracking everyone.
But this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Facebook isn’t necessarily the supreme authority in data safety and cybersecurity. But the discovery made by Edin Jusupovic proves that Facebook’s tracking mission does not end in its platform.
On Twitter, Jusupovic said that Facebook has embedded “hidden tracking codes” in photos that people download. He noticed a structural abnormality when looking at a hex dump of an image file from an unknown origin only to discover it contained a special IPTC instruction.
IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) is an organization that sets publishing standards, including image metadata.
According to the researcher, what he found, where facebook secretly embeds tracking codes in photos only, was ““shocking level of tracking,” adding that “the take from this is that they can potentially track photos outside of their own platform with a disturbing level of precision about who originally uploaded the photo (and probably so much more).”
Yesterday, Z6Mag published a report that a group of researchers has found hidden tracking codes in different porn sites online that can be traced back to Facebook, Google, and Oracle. Researchers from Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pennsylvania scanned 22,484 porn sites and found that 93% of the sade porn sites include hidden codes from the three tech giants.
“Our analysis of 22,484 pornography websites indicated that 93% leak user data to a third party. Tracking on these sites are highly concentrated by a handful of major companies, which we identify. We successfully extracted privacy policies for 3,856 sites, 17% of the total. The policies were written such that one might need a two-year college education to understand them. Our content analysis of the sample’s domains indicated 44.97% of them expose or suggest a specific gender/sexual identity or interest likely to be linked to the user,” the study’s abstract stated.
Jusopovic’s finding “IPTC special instructions” simply refers to a special kind of coded watermark that Facebook adds to tag the image in its own coding. These are where the “tracking” comes into the picture – those tags can be read later. Meaning, Facebook will now how the data of people who had downloaded the image, reuploaded it, and all other information that can be linked to the movement of the image across the internet.
What does it imply?
Adding coded watermarks to images is not new tho. It can be used by the company in arbitrating copyrights claims, or providing better user service, and even in targeting the right target market for advertising. However, as Jusopovic states, what he found was a “shocking level of tracking.”
According to one analyst, the metadata has been added since 2016 and “contains an IPTC block with an ‘Original Transmission Reference’ field that contains some kind of text-encoded sequence. This coding method lets Facebook “know it has seen the image before when it gets uploaded again,” explained a user on Reddit. “It is yet another way to learn associations between people. Person 1 uploaded a bunch of the same photos Person 2 uploaded, let’s show them both all the same advertisements!”
But it needs to be clarified that there is no active tracking that it is happening. With “tracking,” Jusopovic means that Facebook and other people with the right tools can access all the metadata in a photo including the crumbles it picks up as it moves from one platform to another. However, this too carries a lot of security of implications.
“Hidden data can be predictably transmitted through social network images with high-fidelity – and AI can hide that data in plain sight, at large-scale, and beyond human visual discernment, making steganalysis and other countermeasures difficult,” Zack Allen from ZeroFOX.
Nonetheless, the discovery of Jusopovic is proof that Facebook is yet to make do with its promises to protect people’s data as well as make sure that people are aware of what happens to their data. This promise follows the high-profile case involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, where the social media giant was slapped with a five-billion fine by the FTC.