The North Face Led a Campaign Against Facebook — While Handing Over Your Data to Facebook

Advertisers can’t quit Facebook

Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

On June 19, with the seemingly bold claim “We’re in,” outdoors brand The North Face lent powerful corporate backing to the Stop Hate for Profit movement.

Except there’s a problem. Instead of “We’re in!,” The North Face’s tweet perhaps should have read, “We’re in! Kinda!”

Stop Hate for Profit calls on advertisers to boycott Facebook, in response to the rampant “hate and misinformation across Facebook’s products, which are supported by paid advertisements.”

Although The North Face and hundreds of other brands are indeed pausing their Facebook advertising campaigns, they’re still handing Facebook millions of data points about their customers every single day.

In January 2020, Facebook quietly released a new feature called Off-Facebook Activity that allows consumers to see any personal data that third-party companies have shared with the platform. Companies often send this data in order to better target Facebook ads to their own customers, both on Facebook and on other websites.

Facebook makes this data accessible, if you’re willing to dig through the deluge. In a recent piece, I delved into the Off-Facebook Activity data the company has collected about me. More than 1,000 companies were gathering data about everything I did online, and sharing it freely with Facebook. This was happening entirely without my knowledge. The data shared included pages I viewed on many prominent websites, purchases I made through services like DoorDash, and every time I loaded certain apps on my phone.

One of the companies sharing data with Facebook, it turns out, is The North Face. And although they say they’ve stopped placing ads on Facebook, as of mid-July they were still sending copious amounts of customer data Facebook’s way. The North Face did not respond to a request for comment.

Many companies’ own online systems are now so intricately linked to Facebook’s platform that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.

What data, exactly, is The North Face sending to Facebook? Details of every interaction you have with the brand.

Using a data logger, I visited The North Face’s website. From my first click, they started to track my activities and sent frequent updates to Facebook. When I landed on the page, The North Face informed Facebook I was there, and where I had come from (in this case, a Google search). As I browsed around the site, The North Face sent Facebook data on every product I saw — even ones I didn’t click.

Do I need a “women’s lightweight ball cap” in pink? No, but Facebook knows that I viewed it.

I found the cheapest item that I could — a $10.80 blue hat. When I added it to my cart, The North Face immediately pinged Facebook with the details of the hat, as well as its cost.

Adding a hat to my North Face cart prompted an immediate ping to Facebook. Potentially identifying information redacted in red.

As I moved through the purchase process, the company continually updated Facebook on my progress. When I finally completed the process and checked out, The North Face pinged Facebook with a PURCHASE event, logging my transaction, the amount I paid, what I bought, and a unique ID presumably identifying me within their systems.

The North Face may have temporarily paused its advertising campaigns on Facebook. But given the extent of the data it’s still sharing, the company has hardly severed its relationship with Facebook.

Without Facebook, several major apps literally stopped functioning.

Crucially, Facebook is almost certainly holding onto all the data The North Face is sending it, linking it to my account, and waiting to use it to target ads. Even as The North Face is publicly chastising Facebook (an NAACP tweet that The North Face retweeted accuses Facebook of doing “irreversible damage to our democracy”), they’re privately building up a store of data with the company. When they return to advertising on the platform, they won’t really have lost anything. All the data they’ve been sending during their boycott will be right there waiting for them as if they’d never left at all.

The North Face has probably sacrificed some sales by abstaining from using Facebook ads in July. But they’ve almost certainly made up for it in the good press they’ve received from their “boycott” of Facebook. Superficially, the companies have temporarily parted ways. But at the back end level, they’re still intimately linked.

It’s possible that The North Face’s decision to keep sending data to Facebook privately — all while publicly denouncing the company — is a technical oversight. Some of the company’s leadership may not even know what it’s sending. If so, that would be a pretty major oversight.

But it also hints at something even more concerning. Thousands of companies passively share data with Facebook. The practice is so common that it’s become ubiquitous in the e-commerce space — it’s the norm. Many companies’ own online systems are now so intricately linked to Facebook’s platform that it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.

There should never be a situation where a company is publicly boycotting another, while privately handing it mountains of customer data.

Earlier in July, an outage of Facebook’s SDK (a programming interface that allows partners to access a company’s software) caused cascading outages in hundreds of other apps, including Spotify, Pinterest, and Waze. This hints at how many companies rely on Facebook — or at least how deeply they integrate its code into their services. Without Facebook, several major apps literally stopped functioning.

This integration is not necessarily a problem in some circumstances. Customers may be fine with brands like The North Face partnering with Facebook to highlight new, interesting products based on their tastes and purchase history. Personally, I prefer targeted ads to generic ones.

But these kinds of integrations shouldn’t happen in the shadows. And there should never be a situation where a company is publicly boycotting another while privately handing it mountains of customer data.

In a statement quoted in Adweek, The North Face’s CMO Steve Lesnard said, “We believe that in this cultural moment of pain, that normal is not good enough, and we all need to drive positive change immediately. And we believe that action speaks louder than words.”

They do indeed. So far, The North Face has used plenty of words to denounce Facebook. But their deeper actions around data sharing don’t appear to line up.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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