What Does Facebook Know about Me?

Facebook tracks your activity on Facebook.com and tons of third-party websites and apps. Here's how.

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Facebook knows not just your personal profile, but many of your likes and preferences as well. Part of this stems from the fact that you give it information. In addition, it also tracks all your activities on the platform as well.

The idea of a social media platform that comes at absolutely no cost may seem very appealing. With an active user base of over 1.69 billion people in 2020, there is a massive amount of content being shared daily.

With so many users, it’s likely that your friends, family, and even the neighbour’s dog might be browsing and using the site.

Things Facebook Knows About You

If you have never thought about what Facebook knows about you, it might come across as a bit shocking. Some of the things it may know includes:

  • Your real name
  • How old you are and your date of birth
  • What movies you like
  • The books you read
  • Political views you may have
  • Languages you speak
  • Places you have been
  • Whom you work for
  • Your friends and acquaintances
  • The devices you connect with
  • Where you connect from

And much more!

This might seem a bit strange since you typically only provide a bit of personal information when you sign up. Like most service-oriented sites, it just asks a bit of stuff, right? To understand how it knows so much, read on.

Facebook is Data Mining in Various Ways

When you sign up for Facebook you need to provide it with certain information. This forms the basis of your identity for the service. It gives Facebook access to personal data such as your name, gender, date of birth, and so on.

As you use the service, Facebook also makes use of certain mechanisms that allows it to mine increasingly large amounts of data. Through this process it builds a web of information that defines not just you, but your likes, dislikes, and other stuff as well.

This process has become so streamlined that many of us will hardly know it’s actually happening. Let’s consider some things Facebook uses to collect data:

Directly from You

This Facebook Sign Up screen look familiar?

This is the most basic way that Facebook gets your information. As mentioned, this happens when you create a new account on the platform. It will need details including your first and last name, date of birth, gender, and email address.

Once you’ve created your account you also have the opportunity to personalize it to a greater extent. You can tell Facebook what movies you like, the songs you listen to, where you work, what you do, and lots more.

Your Devices

Many of us use multiple devices to get online. For example, a personal computer, laptop, or smartphone. Each time you use this to connect, Facebook collects another batch of information. This includes the device type, IP address, operating system, and what kind of app or browser you use to load its service.

Your ‘Friends’

As you use it, Facebook picks up even more details that it uses to define you socially. For example, it will take note of who you add as friends, how you define the relationship, what details you share with them, and so on.

How you Interact

This is by far one of the biggest means that Facebook has of collecting information. Social networking by nature helps with association through interaction. Because of the massive pool of users, the possibilities for interactive actions are vast.

Each time you ‘Like’ and activity, Facebook takes note of it. Each time you tag a photo, it is able to make a closer association between images and relationship. Even though it’s not directly an action from you, a friend sharing information related to you counts towards your profile in some way as well.

Trackers

Facebook also allows unrelated parties to place advertisements or otherwise promote content outside their key social circles. How you deal with those also adds to your data profile in possibly significant ways.

This means that if you happen to watch a sponsored video, Facebook may add the type of video as your preferred content type. Alternatively, if you wish to stop it from showing you a particular type of post – it is also data since it counts as something you don’t like.

All of this is done by tracking code that comes along with the content being shared.

External Sources

Although you’re using Facebook, the parent company which owns it also owns several other services. For example, WhatsApp, Oculus, and Instagram. This allows it to perform cross-platform data sharing to learn even more.

Why Facebook Wants Data

As with many other companies that collect data today, Facebook has official reasons for doing so. Allegedly, it needs this information to help streamline the service and give you a better user experience.

While in some ways this may be true, there are important factors to take into consideration. To run a service on a global scale requires a really big investment in resources. From servers it uses to the applications it develops, and the staff it hires, Facebook spends a staggering amount of money.

Since you’re using the service for free, where is this money coming from? To assume Mark Zuckerberg is paying for it out of the goodness of his heart would be not just impractical, but also a little crazy.

Facebook earns almost entirely from advertising (Source: Facebook)

At the end of the day, things boil down to a one word answer – advertising. Over the course of 2019, Facebook declared a revenue of slightly over $70 billion. Of that, almost the entire amount was from advertising. 

Because of that, Facebook is highly incentivised to offer advertisers the best service it can. It’s literally ‘go big, or go bust’, there is no Plan B.

How Data Drives Advertising

With so many digital advertising platforms available, it has become a race for companies like Facebook to offer the most competitive advantages. Among its competitors are massive global businesses including Google and Microsoft.

Digital advertising is a much more specific channel that the ads we typically see in real life every day. Advertising who choose this medium can potentially be exposed to a much larger audience. Rather than wasting money on mass advertising, they want to reach the people who are more likely to buy their products.

Let’s consider this scenario:

Facebook knows that you’re male, age 22, enjoy watching war movies, attending world war 2 conventions, and playing Battlefield 1942 on the PC. Because of this pool of data it has, it can direct more relevant ads towards you.

Or perhaps you’re female, age 45, have two pet cats, and enjoy watching animal videos. In that situation, you may be subject to non-stop bombardments of advertisements for various brands of pet toys, pet food, and similar categories of items.

Legalities of Facebook’s Data Mining

The sad truth is that there isn’t any universal acceptance of the legalities of data mining. Not in the context of Facebook or any other company’s activities so far. Discussions, lawsuits, and so on are still ongoing.

A major part of the issue stems from the fact that there is a growing concern about the violation of privacy that these activities typically result in. How the data will ultimately be used is also an issue.

More questions than answers still abound, and we can only wait to see who wins in the end. To get a better idea of this, let’s consider the next point carefully:

Is Your Data Safe with Facebook?

On its own, Facebook is a relatively safe place for your data to be stored. Well, at least as safe as any site can be in this day and age. Unfortunately, Facebook works with a lot of partners as well, and the interconnectivity does sometimes have unintended results.

One clear example of this was the Cambridge Analytica incident. In 2018, personal data belonging to millions of Facebook users was dug out by that platform and used for political advertising.

Despite this massive intrusion on the privacy of its users, there were not many remedial actions taken by Facebook following the incident. Sadly, this might be reflective of a company that simply places no value on privacy in the first place.

From another point of view, there is no site that’s really 100% safe for your data to be. As long as it’s connected to the rest of the web, if someone really wants it, they’ll go for it. The only question is how well you’re willing to safeguard yours as a deterrent.

Taking Control of Your Facebook Data

By now, some of you might be getting the heebie-jeebies about a company knowing so much about you. Honestly speaking, it’s social networking and some level of this is simply to be expected. But, you are not completely powerless. 

While facebook comes with default settings that favor its data collection practices, laws have forced it to enable you, the account owner, some measure of control. What you may want to do can vary depending on your preferences, but it may influence the effectiveness of Facebook as a social media platform.

Deleting Your Facebook Account – The Nuclear Option

If you’re dead scared of what Facebook is doing to your information now this is the option for you. Of course, it’s the last option that Facebook ever wants you to exercise since that means it loses one more of its data sources.

Because of this, the option to delete your account is buried somewhere in the vast amount of settings you can configure. To get to the option, go to Settings & Privacy  -> Your Facebook Information -> Deactivation & Deletion.

Or you can simply click here to access the Facebook deletion option.

Jump through the hoops from there and it’ll be done. Be warned though that this step is very final. If you want to use Facebook again you’ll have to start from scratch. Even so, that does not mean Facebook trashes all the data.

In fact, it is very dodgy about the details and says it may keep some data for unspecified periods of time for unspecified reasons.

Deactivating Your Facebook Account – Taking a Hiatus

For those who have become so dependent on Facebook as part of their daily lives, you can try a trial run first. Deactivating removes your access to the platform until a point when you reactivate it again.

This procedure means that Facebook still keeps all your information, so you can use everything again at any time in the future. This option is located at the same place where you delete your account. Make sure you choose the right option!

While your account is deactivated, your profile isn’t available in search, your timeline becomes unavailable, but bits of stuff may still be visible. You can also reactivate it anytime you want – this happens simply by logging in again.

Moderate Your Privacy Settings – The Saner Option

Unless you have a reason to hate Facebook so much, typically you can just try to manage your privacy settings. While this may seem to be the option most people would likely choose – it is certainly a daunting one.

There are so many privacy settings you can tweak in Facebook that it can take a really long time to streamline. On top of that, Facebook itself changes the platform from time to time. When this happens, it may reset some options or even create new ones.

Personally I think trying to do this is pretty much a lost clause. I know I’ve given up at least. To try and do an express and somewhat guided version of this, the Facebook Privacy Checkup tool might come in useful.

Getting a Copy of Your Facebook Data

In the same area where you access the Deactivation and Deletion option, Facebook has placed a link that will enable you to download what information it has on you. Again, this is located under Settings & Privacy  -> Your Facebook Information.

Clicking the ‘Download Your Information’ link will bring you to a separate page where you can choose what it is exactly you want a copy of. This is important, because a lot of information is kept. Downloading everything may take a long time. 

Depending on how long you’ve been using it, what services you partake in, and the volume of your actions, it may take some time for everything to be gathered. If you go for it, Facebook will let you know when the file is ready for download. 

It took around five minutes to generate mine, a file more than 200MB in size. And I hardly use Facebook actively.

Conclusion

Although Facebook is nowhere as large as Google, the web of data and services it weaves is no less daunting. On one hand, it really does require a lot of data to make the service work. On the other, how the company handles our data can at times be a little questionable.

For those who truly value privacy and anonymity on the Internet, a social media platform isn’t where you should hang out in the first place.

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