Using Facebook Ads To Prank Your Friends

Most tech savvy individuals are well aware of the vast amounts of data that social networking companies collect on us. Some take steps to avoid this data collection, others consider it a trade-off for using free tools to stay in touch with friends and family. Sometimes these ads can get a bit… creepy. Have you ever noticed an ad in the sidebar and thought to yourself, “I just searched for that…” It can be rather unsettling.

[Brian] was looking for ways to get back at his new roommate in retaliation of prank that was pulled at [Brian’s] expense. [Brian] is no novice to Internet marketing. One day, he realized that he could create a Facebook ad group with only one member. Playing off of his roommate’s natural paranoia, he decided to serve up some of the most eerily targeted Facebook ads ever seen.

Creating extremely targeted ads without giving away the prank is trickier than you might think. The ad can’t be targeted solely for one person. It needs to be targeted to something that seems like a legitimate niche market, albeit a strange one. [Brian’s] roommate happens to be a professional sword swallower (seriously). He also happens to ironically have a difficult time swallowing pills. naturally, [Brian] created an ad directed specifically towards that market.

Sword Swallowing Ad

The roommate thought this was a bit creepy, but mostly humorous. Slowly over the course of three weeks, [Brian] served more and more ads. Each one was more targeted than the last. He almost gave himself away at one point, but he managed to salvage the prank. Meanwhile, the roommate grew more and more paranoid. He started to think that perhaps Facebook was actually listening in on his phone calls. How else could they have received some of this information? As a happy coincidence, all of this happened at the same time as the [Edward Snowden] leaks. Not only was the roommate now concerned about Facebook’s snooping, but he also had the NSA to worry about.

Eventually, [Brian] turned himself in using another custom Facebook ad as the reveal. The jig was up and no permanent damage was done. You might be wondering how much it cost [Brian] for this elaborate prank? The total cost came to $1.70. Facebook has since changed their ad system so you can only target a minimum of 20 users. [Brian] provides an example of how you can get around the limitation, though. If you want to target a male friend, you can simply add 19 females to the group and then target only males within your group of 20 users. A pretty simple workaround

This prank brings up some interesting social questions. [Brian’s] roommate seemed to actually start believing that Facebook might be listening in on his personal calls for the purposes of better ad targeting. How many other people would believe the same thing? Is it really that far-fetched to think that these companies might move in this direction? If we found out they were already doing this type of snooping, would it really come as a shock to us?

38 thoughts on “Using Facebook Ads To Prank Your Friends

  1. Well, the facebook phone app already makes you sign away permissions for letting it read your SMS doesn’t it?
    They say this is just to make confirmation texts automated. But whatever its used for now, you have granted permission away for whatever future use they want….

    1. But if someone wireshark’d their phone’s facebook activity and found that it was sending your text messages to their servers, do you have any idea the amount of shit that would go down?

      Hackers. They’re why you can go to sleep at night feeling safe.

      1. You really think the sheepish masses would give a damn? It’s already came out the ALL the tech companies including facebook were conspiring against the public.. tracking and monitoring and spying under the order of criminal intelligence agencies.. Look what the public has done as a result.. um.. NOTHING.

        1. And now.. come to find out.. All these rogue cell phone towers that are popping up.. Turns out they found the company that makes them.. and guess what.. They ONLY sell to Government and Military.. So now not only are they tracking and spying.. they are also pushing malware to your phones to backdoor them.

          I’m shocked theres not rioting in Washington.. Like.. REALLY.. what is it going to take?!

          1. Well, there are large numbers of cell towers with unknown owners and ONE of the companies that makes tiny portable kits will only sell to the military. The military itself maintains many of its own towers. There is a growing concern over criminal or foreign-government run towers. Honestly, it could be anything. It isn’t out of reach for a savvy person to set up their own tower, or make a nice cheap fake one with a repeater.

            A secure cellphone company has been making the news lately and stirring up people. I can’t remember the name of it and already spent more time on this than is warranted.

        2. Well, Juries still out on what the tech firms actually knew.
          Remember the NSA was installing their own hardware covertly, so its conceivable they didnt know.
          Of course, if they did know they would be under a gag order, and probably scared of being separated from their familys and chased around the world like Snowden so…..so pretty power intimidation would be very easy.

          1. Why would the jurry still be out? They knew what information THEY collect and sell.. Their actions this entire time have been nearly just as bad as the NSA.. The only reason I say the NSA’s actions were worse, is because they violated their sworn oaths to uphold the constitution when they engaged the American population as they would an emeny combatant. Google, Facebook, M$, Apple etc.. atleast they never had to swear by bonded oath that they would never violate the people of this country.

      2. I am sure it would fairly quickly come to light – although it wouldn’t (I think) be too hard to encrypt those texts and hide it in something “legitimate” being sent to facebook.

  2. “If we found out they were already doing this type of snooping, would it really come as a shock to us?”
    And more importantly, would it change anyone’s behaviour/use of Facebook? I’m always amazed.

    1. I honestly think they do scan for keywords via SMS on phones with the Facebook app installed. More than once my wife has texted me about a subject, neither of us discussed it outside of texting or face to face, and neither of us looked it up on our computers, and yet the very next time she logged in to Facebook there was an ad specifically about that subject. Once would be funny, twice would be a coincidence…but this has happened way too many times now.

  3. Brilliant!
    I once got a little freaked out when I saw an ‘I love ruby’ suggested like. I do love ruby, but I hadn’t searched for it, mentioned it or used it since switching to python a few years prior. Upon re-reading I realized that it said rugby (top sport among my peer group) and I am a nerd :p

  4. @Brian – ” Is it really that far-fetched to think that these companies might move in this direction? If we found out they were already doing this type of snooping, would it really come as a shock to us?”

    Hmmm… Trojan.Peskyspy is now 5 years old. With it “THEY” can listen in on your Skype telephone calls. Notice that this would be impossible when the boys in Estonia still owned SKYPE. It’s amazing the evolution it went through ever since the NSA (oops I mean Ebay then Microsoft) purchased it and simply destroyed it’s intrinsic UN-hack-ability. Trust me it was back then. The “BIG Boys” tried in vain. They sent in their best hackers too. The Russians were so pissed over it that they did very bad things to them in retaliation. Even the infamous Israelis couldn’t make a dent in it. Today it’s a worthless tool for people needing VoIP secure communications

    What I’d like to see is a HaD that dealt with VoIP secure comm using the secure principles of the following amazing mostly unbreakable techs: SIGASALY, PGP-Voice, and the WW2-era Siemens “T52” aka Sturgeon.

  5. “If you want to target a male friend, you can simply add 19 females to the group” – Judging from the general misogyny seen in the comment threads here, I’d wager this workaround isn’t actually accessible to the average hackaday user – at least not for targeting a male friend.

    1. A general misogyny in the Hackaday comments? Baloney, clearly you are using misogyny as a pejorative term, thereby weakening it’s use in intelligent discussion. A good portion of my Facebook friends are women, are there 19? I doubt it because I don’t become friends with every one who is suggested as a potential friend, so I don’t have hundreds in my friends list

  6. Fantastic prank.

    And regarding Facebook and Google snooping, I would be more shocked to find they’re not doing it. The potential for this is something I constantly warn my family about and why I don’t use social media free services myself.

    1. What a load of BS. You do realize that any time you interact on any website you too are becoming the product that is consumed? Including commenting here. Are you honestly going to tell me you don’t use any forums, image hosting services, YouTube, etc?

  7. I know for a fact my android phone was (is?) snooping on my text messages. I text a friend to find out the name of the solicitor he used when buying his house, then text my wife the solicitor’s name and number, about 3 hours later the phone happily provided me with an estimate of how long it would take me to travel to his practice. Didn’t Google him or reference him in any other way on any computery device I own.

    It’s also worked out where I live, where I work and when might be a useful time to remind me of the travelling distance to either from either. I’ve also noticed spelling mistakes I’ve made while searching using the URL bar in Chrome on my laptop appearing as suggested searches in Chrome on my phone.

    I used to laugh at the tinfoil hat brigade, but maybe their hearts are in the right place.

    1. Well, there is a very good reason why people with careers in tech often buck the trend on using smartphones. It is a common thing for admins to not have any kind of cellphone on them unless they absolutely have to.

    2. Some of those are published features for Chrome sycning or, I assume your using Google Now.
      It isnt the phone or the os itself, its the syncing between logged in google accounts.
      SMSs are still a bit too far, but the very point of Now was to provide in-context suggestions based on learned behavior.

    1. Based on my http://www.fanficmaker.com website and the traffic I get for that 0.1-1% of people click on the adverts. The adverts are google adwords, so how “targeted” they are will depend on if they are logged into google, and how much they let google have.

      Frankly, even <1% of clicks seem amazingly high, but I can take whatever I can get!

  8. Woah, this is one comment about the Illuminati away from being an Alex Jones article. Privacy has always been an illusion in human society, by virtue of the fact that we’re social animals.
    You don’t need to use high tech sorcery to get information about people, ask any car dealer, barber(or hair stylist, if you prefer), or even a Starbucks Barista. You might be able to get at the meaty bits faster with the use of technology, but social engineering is still the patron saint of people control.

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