Meta’s pixel code tracks students from kindergarten to college
Dec 6, 2023

Meta’s pixel code tracks students from kindergarten to college

An investigation by The Markup found that pixel collects data from many students using other websites, including high schoolers who sign up for financial aid and college testing. Then the code shares demographic data with Meta.

For years, Facebook, now renamed Meta, has offered a code called pixel to businesses. By embedding pixel on their websites, businesses can collect information on users, then target them with ads on Meta’s social media platforms.

The investigative news website The Markup has been looking into how some of the personal information pixel gathers is shared back with the tech giant. Meta says its policies make it clear that advertisers should not send sensitive information about customers through its business tools.

But Colin Lecher, co-author of a new Markup investigation, is now reporting that students are among those that the pixel code tracks. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali.

Colin Lecher: These pixels are on millions of websites, and we’ve been kind of investigating for the past year what these websites are. So we found it on tax filing websites, we found it on hospital websites. Most recently, we took a look at education-related websites, so we found that a lot of places where students regularly visit, for example, the official [American College Testing] website or a bunch of learning, educational websites for younger kids, were using the pixel and sending some potentially sensitive information to Meta through it.

Lily Jamali: Yeah. And at the top of your piece, you give this example of a hypothetical high school student, and you kind of track some of the ways that she might be touched by this pixel tracking code. Can you walk us through what this hypothetical student might have seen?

Lecher: So the example we use is, like you said, there’s a hypothetical student and let’s say she’s in high school, and she signs up for an account through the ACT website, she maybe applies or searches for colleges through a website called the Common App, which is an application website for colleges that a bunch of colleges around the country accepts. Maybe she orders a yearbook online through a service called Jostens and essentially, invisibly, all of those services use the Meta pixel, and in some cases, what’s being sent from those websites is really sensitive. So in the case of the ACT website, for example, which I think is one of the most concerning ones that we found, this was the official website. And as part of signing up for an account on that website, you fill out demographic information. You say, “Oh, I’m a high school student. I might need financial aid, here’s my ethnicity, here’s my age and gender.” And what we found is that all of that information was being sent directly to Meta as the student fills that out. And the ACT declined to comment on that. But after a few days after we reached out for comment, they removed that tracker.

Jamali: That’s really interesting. I mean, I think the thing that’s so striking about that example is, it’s one thing if I’m going online to find a pair of jeans, but if it’s a test that I have to take in order to get into college, there’s really, like, one or two options for me. And I thought that was a really interesting bit of your investigation. What exactly do we know, then, about what Facebook, parent company Meta, what do they do with this information?

Lecher: Well, it’s a really interesting point because it seems like even Facebook’s own engineers don’t necessarily know what happens with this information. So all of this information gets transmitted to Facebook, these millions of websites around the internet are tracking visitors, they send the information to Facebook. And what Facebook really gets out of it is essentially a chance to build demographic profiles of people. And if anyone wants to reach out to people who are interested in buying sneakers, then they can do that. So if I’m just an athletic wear company, I can log into Facebook, and I can just say, I really want to reach this pool of people. And Facebook has all the information that I need to do that.

Jamali: So what did Facebook, its parent company Meta, have to say about this? Did they take issue with any of your reporting? Did they try to explain it away?

Lecher: We’ve done several stories on this at this point, and they’ve never taken any issue with the reporting. I think it’s fair to say their position on this has been repeatedly that this is a violation of their terms of service in using these tools. They’re basically saying, if you are a business, you have to agree to these specific terms in order to use the Meta pixel. And those include things like not sending sensitive financial information or sending information on kids under 13. But in practice, that just doesn’t happen. This information is being sent, and the rules clearly are not working in every case.

Jamali: I want to ask you, what are the implications of having a tracker like this be able to collect and then share this information with Facebook?

Lecher: One thing I think I really learned more about is that it kind of exposes the holes in the regulatory system for online privacy in the United States. There’s effectively no federal privacy law that affects broadly the entire population and that sort of like protects information for anyone who goes online. And so there’s been a lot of steam recently to kind of expand regulations to see if there’s like a way to sort of more broadly protect kids who go online, and I feel like that’s the biggest sort of movement that we’re seeing now.

Jamali: And what can parents and guardians or even students themselves, if they’re worried about this, what can they do to maybe block this code from gathering their information?

Lecher: There are some technical solutions that are pretty straightforward and easy to use. Ad blockers are a really popular one; lots of people use those and that does block this sort of tracking. But other than that, it’s a difficult one because this is so pervasive.

More on this

Colin Lecher mentioned that the ACT website was, until recently, using pixel. Others mentioned in the story run the gamut, including the online presentation tool Prezi, the animated learning site ABCmouse and the K-12 school sports website ArbiterSports. The Markup reports they’ve all used pixel.

You can read more about The Markup’s broader project, “Pixel Hunt,” which explores how the Meta pixel quietly tracks people on the web. The series has drawn the attention of lawmakers and regulators and led to dozens of lawsuits against Meta and other companies since the publication launched it last year.

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