Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is Facebook Knowingly Allowing Counterfeit Websites to Access Your Information?

There are scores of unanswered questions when it comes to the kinds of tactics advertisers are using these days to better monitor our shopping habits and the things we 'like.'

Both Apple and Google have already been caught with their pants down, secretly trying to keep tabs on where we go and what we do. There's little doubt, these gigantic companies we're entrusting to protect our data and keep it out of the hands of those who would use it for unfair or illegal purposes can't keep their eyes on everything all the time. They're simply too big and there's too much data being exchanged to hope for that kind of Utopian reality.

For instance, take the area of counterfeit merchandising. The selling of phony, unlicensed goods to unsuspecting consumers through overseas, and sometimes local, websites is one of the world's fastest-growing illegal business scams. In part, because these Internet criminals are using more sophisticated and brazen ways to pinpoint and target what you may currently be in the market for.

Case in point, apparently Facebook (surprise) is once again on the hot-seat for allowing sites that sell counterfeit merchandise to run rampant through its backyard, all while under the guise of a legitimate "umbrella" marketing company. The kicker here being the biggest alleged umbrella is in China. And, as most of us know, due to its networking potential, Facebook is currently illegal in China.

However, according to Eric Feinberg, founder of F.A.K.E. (Fans Against Kounterfeit Enterprise), a little government censorship's not stopping companies based in mainland China from marketing their services to companies - both legitimate, and fraudulent - worldwide.

"We have concrete proof that Facebook is not only allowing, but obviously, profiting, off the monitoring of its users by companies whose sole purpose is to take that data and use it to sell you counterfeit merchandise."

According to Feinberg, the main suspect in this case is a Shanghai-based marketing giant called adSage. Founded by former Microsoft adCenter programmer/manager, ZhaoHui Tang, adSage is the official partner of Facebook as it tries to claw its way into the lucrative, and virtually untapped, Chinese marketplace. adSage boasts over 3000 clients worldwide. Some are legitimate - such as Lever Bros. and top Chinese search engine, Baidu, - and some are not. These 'nots' are illegal overseas businesses which sign up for the same Facebook targeted marketing campaigns as the real guys. What supposedly happens next is exactly what Facebook says it's not doing; the covert monitoring of your activity and posts, and the mining of your data, which is then sent to these clients and used to create customized "clickable" ads specifically pertaining to what you just discussed or posted, as recently as twenty minutes ago. And, if these con-artists are willing to sell you bogus goods without blinking, imagine what else they're doing with your data.

The problem here is two-fold: Obviously, being sent links from illegal companies posing as the real deal is one. The other, is the massive ethical and fiduciary responsibility Facebook is potentially violating by allowing adSage, and companies like it, to tap into its application's software code and track your movements without your knowledge. This process even has a name: A.F.P. "adSage For Performance." Which, the company website boldly boasts, "means quicker classification and behavior of the user... which is then available in a fraction of the time to adSage's analytical team." Or, loosely translated, "We can tell you who they are, where they are, and exactly what they're looking for, in about ten minutes."

Feinberg, who designs and manages numerous Facebook fan/promotional pages for various professional sports teams, claims when he mentions the Pro Bowl funny things begin happening. "The Pro Bowl takes place in Hawaii, so Facebook and its marketers think I live in Hawaii, thus, within minutes, adds for all things Hawaiian begin appearing on my page. Not to mention the deluge of counterfeit NFL merchandise." Kay'Lee Wells, one of Feinberg's associates, experimented by changing her profile pic to a bag by designer Louis Vuitton, and, the very next day, she began seeing ads for counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags. "Whenever I changed my cover photo or made comments about certain things, ads would pop up," she added.

You don't need a Ph.D. from Stanford to see the long-term implications of guerrilla tactics such as these are much scarier than buying a fake Green Bay Packers jersey. For instance, a new virus has recently appeared which targets your browser, not your hard drive, making it virtually impossible to detect. How does it spread? Clicking on a link. It's a sobering thought knowing even the companies who swear up and down they're not selling your data might not even be aware they're doing it. If, in fact, they are aware, that's another subject, entirely.

Bottom line, no matter who they are or what they're doing with our information, three things are for certain:

1. Congress is light years behind technology with regard to the passage of new laws and the creation of more rigid parameters that can better keep up with, and better regulate, this constantly-evolving medium. But, who are we kidding? By the time the 'Hatfields' and 'McCoys' agree on what to have for breakfast, a hundred new websites have already launched, looking to steal your information, and/or identity, and doing it with technology that was state-of-the-art yesterday but is obsolete, today. It's the socio-political equivalent of a Keystone Cop trotting along in a horse and buggy and being blown away by an army of passing Lamborghinis. How will he ever catch them? Factor in the problem of international prosecution and you've got yourself one heck of a virtual nut to crack.

2. Facebook is the biggest entity the online world, and possibly the entire world, has ever seen. And yet, with all the potential pitfalls of identity theft, stalking, harassment, pedophilia, credit card fraud, application hacking, counterfeiters, new browser viruses, and a litany of other potential nightmares from a now publicly-traded company, the fact that there's not a single human being you can call for assistance is simply beyond belief.

3. Tang Zhaohui just might be the modern day Freddy Krueger.

(surprisingly, no one at Facebook was available for comment.)

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