Facebook secretly spied on Snapchat usage to confuse advertisers, court docs say

Facebook secretly spied on Snapchat usage to confuse advertisers, court docs say

Unsealed court documents have revealed more details about a secret Facebook project initially called “Ghostbusters,” designed to sneakily access encrypted Snapchat usage data to give Facebook a leg up on its rival, just when Snapchat was experiencing rapid growth in 2016.

The documents were filed in a class-action lawsuit from consumers and advertisers, accusing Meta of anticompetitive behavior that blocks rivals from competing in the social media ads market.

“Whenever someone asks a question about Snapchat, the answer is usually that because their traffic is encrypted, we have no analytics about them,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (who has since rebranded his company as Meta) wrote in a 2016 email to Javier Olivan.

“Given how quickly they’re growing, it seems important to figure out a new way to get reliable analytics about them,” Zuckerberg continued. “Perhaps we need to do panels or write custom software. You should figure out how to do this.”

At the time, Olivan was Facebook’s head of growth, but now he’s Meta’s chief operating officer. He responded to Zuckerberg’s email saying that he would have the team from Onavo—a controversial traffic-analysis app acquired by Facebook in 2013—look into it.

Olivan told the Onavo team that he needed “out of the box thinking” to satisfy Zuckerberg’s request. He “suggested potentially paying users to ‘let us install a really heavy piece of software'” to intercept users’ Snapchat data, a court document shows.

What the Onavo team eventually came up with was a project internally known as “Ghostbusters,” an obvious reference to Snapchat’s logo featuring a white ghost. Later, as the project grew to include other Facebook rivals, including YouTube and Amazon, the project was called the “In-App Action Panel” (IAAP).

The IAAP program’s purpose was to gather granular insights into users’ engagement with rival apps to help Facebook develop products as needed to stay ahead of competitors. For example, two months after Zuckerberg’s 2016 email, Meta launched Stories, a Snapchat copycat feature, on Instagram, which the Motley Fool noted rapidly became a key ad revenue source for Meta.

In an email to Olivan, the Onavo team described the “technical solution” devised to help Zuckerberg figure out how to get reliable analytics about Snapchat users. It worked by “develop[ing] ‘kits’ that can be installed on iOS and Android that intercept traffic for specific sub-domains, allowing us to read what would otherwise be encrypted traffic so we can measure in-app usage,” the Onavo team said.

Olivan was told that these so-called “kits” used a “man-in-the-middle” attack typically employed by hackers to secretly intercept data passed between two parties. Users were recruited by third parties who distributed the kits “under their own branding” so that they wouldn’t connect the kits to Onavo unless they used a specialized tool like Wireshark to analyze the kits. TechCrunch reported in 2019 that sometimes teens were paid to install these kits. After that report, Facebook promptly shut down the project.

This “man-in-the-middle” tactic, consumers and advertisers suing Meta have alleged, “was not merely anticompetitive, but criminal,” seemingly violating the Wiretap Act. It was used to snoop on Snapchat starting in 2016, on YouTube from 2017 to 2018, and on Amazon in 2018, relying on creating “fake digital certificates to impersonate trusted Snapchat, YouTube, and Amazon analytics servers to redirect and decrypt secure traffic from those apps for Facebook’s strategic analysis.”

Ars could not reach Snapchat, Google, or Amazon for comment.

Facebook allegedly sought to confuse advertisers

Not everyone at Facebook supported the IAAP program. “The company’s highest-level engineering executives thought the IAAP Program was a legal, technical, and security nightmare,” another court document said.

Pedro Canahuati, then-head of security engineering, warned that incentivizing users to install the kits did not necessarily mean that users understood what they were consenting to.

“I can’t think of a good argument for why this is okay,” Canahuati said. “No security person is ever comfortable with this, no matter what consent we get from the general public. The general public just doesn’t know how this stuff works.”

Mike Schroepfer, then-chief technology officer, argued that Facebook wouldn’t want rivals to employ a similar program analyzing their encrypted user data.

“If we ever found out that someone had figured out a way to break encryption on [WhatsApp] we would be really upset,” Schroepfer said.

While the unsealed emails detailing the project have recently raised eyebrows, Meta’s spokesperson told Ars that “there is nothing new here—this issue was reported on years ago. The plaintiffs’ claims are baseless and completely irrelevant to the case.”

According to Business Insider, advertisers suing said that Meta never disclosed its use of Onavo “kits” to “intercept rivals’ analytics traffic.” This is seemingly relevant to their case alleging anticompetitive behavior in the social media ads market, because Facebook’s conduct, allegedly breaking wiretapping laws, afforded Facebook an opportunity to raise its ad rates “beyond what it could have charged in a competitive market.”

Since the documents were unsealed, Meta has responded with a court filing that said: “Snapchat’s own witness on advertising confirmed that Snap cannot ‘identify a single ad sale that [it] lost from Meta’s use of user research products,’ does not know whether other competitors collected similar information, and does not know whether any of Meta’s research provided Meta with a competitive advantage.”

This conflicts with testimony from a Snapchat executive, who alleged that the project “hamper[ed] Snap’s ability to sell ads” by causing “advertisers to not have a clear narrative differentiating Snapchat from Facebook and Instagram.” Both internally and externally, “the intelligence Meta gleaned from this project was described” as “devastating to Snapchat’s ads business,” a court filing said.

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