Tech Thoughts: Deactivating Threads means Meta can still build your profile

Gelo Gonzales

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Tech Thoughts: Deactivating Threads means Meta can still build your profile

META. Meta Threads app logo is seen in this illustration taken, July 6, 2023

Dado Ruvic/Reuters

New app, same old Meta data operations

Meta’s new copycat app, Threads, is amassing a huge number of user sign-ups, thanks to its integration with Instagram. 

The Instagram-to-Threads link allowed users to make the process of joining a new social media platform a frictionless affair, even allowing users to bring over their follower base, which many observers feel was key at a time when, by various degrees, people have social media fatigue. 

The case is the opposite if you want to leave. If you had chosen to sign up using your Instagram account, you’ll only be able to delete your Threads account if you also delete your Instagram account. It’s artificial friction employed by Meta to keep users on the platform – like an arrow you can’t pull out because of the barbs. 

Meta is only giving users the ability to deactivate their account. The problem with merely deactivating an account is that Meta can continue to collect your data via third party websites, your device, and other Meta apps, among other ways, and connect all of that to your Threads profile.

Forbes described what Facebook calls “Off Facebook Activity” tracking as “a harmless sounding description for a nefarious ecosystem that embeds trackers behind third-party apps and websites as they profile users.”

Your Threads profile is built up even as it’s deactivated, ready to be served ads or content that the algorithm believes is best for you when you return.

As one expert, behavioral scientist and disinformation researcher from University of Maryland Caroline Orr Bueno, described it, the move feels like Meta keeping your Instagram account hostage, something which she has never heard of. 

Orr Bueno also linked to a 2019 CNET article that reported how you were still being tracked even after you’ve deactivated, a practice that Facebook doesn’t explicitly explain, and which may be “deceptive.”

“It makes sense to deactivate your account if you’re trying to hide from people online because other users won’t see your profile, posts and previous comments. You’re essentially invisible to everyone on the social network. Except Facebook. It does nothing to prevent Facebook from collecting data on you,” CNET’s Alfred Ng wrote.

New app, same data collection practices

A Wired article compared what Meta’s Threads collects – based on Apple’s App Store privacy labels – to competitors like Twitter, Bluesky, Mastodon and others. Meta’s list of the data it collects is, by a mile, longer than any of the other services.

Seeing the comparisons were surprising in that we’re under the impression that almost any service we sign up for is going to collect our data, but Meta’s operations, just based on that comparison, is on another scale. 

Wired wrote, “Threads (Android, Apple) potentially collects a wide assortment of personal data that remains connected to you, based on the information available in Apple’s App Store, from your purchase history and physical address to your browsing history and health information.”

The app also collects what is labeled as “Sensitive information” which could include “your race, sexual orientation, pregnancy status, and religion as well as your biometric data.” 

Not even TikTok collects as much, based on Apple’s privacy labels. YouTube has a long list too, but it doesn’t appear to collect sensitive information. Facebook and Instagram collect the same kind of data as Threads.

Go through Wired’s list, and nothing’s as extensive as what a Meta app collects. What does that tell us? A social media app can likely function without being so intrusive. Some people already have the attitude, “well, all my data is already out there anyway.” That maybe shouldn’t be the case, and that might only be a normalization because we’ve learned to accept that that’s how Meta and Google – surveillance capitalism’s two biggest giants – have done it.

On a related note, if all that data is with Facebook, what’s to stop it from sharing that data to be used against a user? In 2022, a mother and daughter in Nebraska in the US faced criminal charges for allegedly carrying out an illegal abortion. Their cause wasn’t helped by Facebook, which handed over data, including chat messages, when Nebraska police requested it through a warrant.

Big gets bigger

What this also tells us is that Threads is still a Meta app, working under the same algorithms and business models despite firm evidence of its harms. It’s just business as usual for Zuckerberg, who capitalized on Elon Musk’s, erm, creative destruction of Twitter.

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Threads presents another “oil well” of data for Meta, with the Twitter-like app encouraging different behaviors from users, and hence, producing a set of different data points compared to Facebook and Instagram.

And that is extremely valuable for a surveillance capitalist magnate like Meta. Another source of data helps Meta create a more detailed version of user profiles that lead to more accurate targeted ads, which are therefore more valuable to advertisers, at the expense of our privacy. 

Threads currently has no ads, but unsurprisingly, there are plans for that. Zuckerberg has expressed that he’d like to reach critical mass before deciding that this could be monetized.

At its current pace, not accounting for launch hype, Threads has the potential to reach that figure, amassing 100 million users in 5 days, and anyone who’s attached to their Instagram account, and made a Threads account on a whim or out of curiosity, are in for the ride, with no realistic choice to opt out. 

Meta has said it’s looking to eventually give users a way to delete their Threads account without deleting their Instagram account. When might that come? Business-wise, only when they’re sure users are attached to Threads already. –

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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.