Facebook is accused of harvesting the data of teenagers and on-selling it to advertisers for targeted alcohol, gambling, vaping and dating ads.
- Lobby group Reset Australia set up a fake account and created advertisements on Facebook targeting teenagers
- It says the results show Facebook treats teenagers as if they are adults
- A group of school-age teenagers that spoke to the ABC said the experiment felt like "you're being spied on"
The findings were revealed in a report, released today, by lobby group Reset Australia — the local arm of a global initiative working to "counter digital threats to democracy".
The group last year set up a fake account, Ozzie News Network, to test whether Facebook treated the data of teenagers differently to adults.
As well as gleaning information about users from activity on Facebook, online trackers — known as “cookies” — can follow users as they browse elsewhere on the internet.
The data sets are then used to create targeted ads by social media sites, such as Facebook.
Investigations overseas have shown tracking and profiling occurs on other big tech platforms like Instagram — owned by Facebook — and YouTube.
"What we found was there was no difference in the way they were treating teenager's data," Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said.
"It enabled advertisers to buy access to those profiles and target teenagers around very questionable interest areas such as gambling, smoking, alcohol and even their dating status.
"It's shocking and concerning."
After discovering this, Reset Australia submitted its own advertisements in these interest areas.
It says Facebook rejected two of its advertisements featuring regular cigarettes, but when it resubmitted the ads displaying electronic cigarettes, they were approved.
Traditional advertising is tightly regulated but the law has not kept pace with the explosion in social media, creating what Chris Cooper calls a "loophole" in the system.
"The [profiles] become easily accessible to advertisers on Facebook's ad platform and really any advertiser is anyone with a credit card," he said.
"And what's worse is our experiment showed Facebook approved these ads."
Citing ethical concerns, Reset Australia did not pay for the advertisements and they did not run on the Facebook platform, but the group believes they had passed the company's internal checks.
We have 'age restriction tools': Facebook
In a statement, Facebook told the ABC "we have significant measures in place to review all ads before and after they run, including automated systems and human reviewers."
"Anyone advertising on our platforms must comply with our policies along with all local laws and codes, such as those restricting the advertising of alcohol to minors in Australia," it said.
"To support this, we also have age restriction tools that all businesses can implement on their accounts themselves to control who sees their content.
Following the results of the experiment, Reset Australia wants the federal government to follow the lead of the UK and Ireland in moving to prevent the trade of teenager's data.
The federal government is conducting a broad privacy review looking at traditional media as well as the way tech companies use data.
Submissions have closed and Reset Australia hopes when the government responds it will consider laws like those introduced in the UK that put strict limits on profiles involving teenage social media users.
Just 'like spying'
At Rosebank College in Sydney's west, the ABC visited five teenagers who were among the first in the country to see the report.
Before reading it, year 12 school captain Isabella Callahan expected she would not be surprised by the report.
But the results went far further than she imagined.
"I was like, wow," she said.
"I have had ads [on my feed] on how to make the perfect cocktail or how to get your summer body or your sports bet or your poker app," she said.
"The shock value came after I saw those are the things that are advertised towards me that shouldn't be, because they should be over 18."
Her friends were similarly surprised.
"I think it's quite shocking that Facebook and other social media platforms are putting prices on our personal information, it's quite alarming," year 11 student Caitlin La said.
"It just feels like you're being targeted and it's so specific and it does feel like you're being spied on."