What Does Facebook Know About You?

The internet is an integral part of everything that we do. We use Google Drive to do work, watch our favorite shows on Netflix, and connect with our friends on Facebook and Instagram. News about Cambridge Analytica, Facebook, and Russian meddling has raised questions about our privacy online, and what is done with the wealth of information collected by Facebook and other websites.

Recently, Facebook added the ability for users to download a “data archive,” a large file that contains almost everything Facebook has collected about them. Many people have been surprised, and even horrified by what they have found in their archive. Dylan McKay discovered that Facebook had logs of calls between him and his partner’s mother. He posted a screenshot on Twitter, and numerous other users replied that they had found similar data in their archives.  Facebook stores information many feel is unnecessary. Following the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal involving the sale of data from more than 87 million users, many internet citizens worry about the safety of their personal data. Facebook claims that they do not share your data, and that it is used for internal purposes only, but these claims are obviously no longer dependable.

Facebook claims that they do not share your data, and that it is used for internal purposes only, but these claims are obviously no longer dependable.

As if the billions of active users on Facebook didn’t generate enough information, Facebook also has ways of collecting information about users when they’re not on the Facebook website or in the Facebook app. Facebook provides many “free” services to website owners to enhance their websites that tend to also benefit Facebook. One such service is called a Social Plugin. Social Plugins, as Facebook calls them, are small pieces of code that developers put on their websites that allow users to “like” that page or user without visiting Facebook. Even if one isn’t logged in to Facebook, the plugins are also used to track the websites that users view, because Facebook can connect an IP address (a unique set of numbers that identifies your computer online) to a Facebook account. Another way they can track users is with Facebook Logins. A Facebook login is a way that websites can have you log in to their services. Instead of entering a username and password, users can click a button to sign into a website using their Facebook account. Like social plugins, these track your browsing history to target ads. Another tool developed by Facebook that can collect information is the Facebook Audience Network, Facebook’s advertising network. Like Google’s AdWords network, this allows website owners to display ads from Facebook advertisers on their website for a small profit.

“So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Senator Orrin Hatch asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on April 10. A smirking Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads.” While the 84-year-old senator from Utah may not have completely understood how Facebook makes money, it is important to understand how Facebook profits off user data. The Washington Post reported in August of 2016 that Facebook has more than “98 personal data points that [they use] to target ads to [users].” When Facebook updated the Ads Manager (the platform used to create and publish advertisements) in 2015, they added hundreds of categories for advertisers to target users. Some notable data points include house square-footage, political affiliation, year house was built, and net worth.

It’s just a matter of time until Facebook slips up again.

Advertisers use these advanced features to target ads to very specific groups of users. They can even pay Facebook to send ads based on location. According to CBS News, Facebook can track users’ locations even when they aren’t using the app. This allows Facebook to push ads for stores and offers near users’ current locations. Facebook will also “suggest” content and advertisements based on places visited in the past. Even worse, Facebook keeps a map of users’ precise locations. While some users have disabled this feature, it is still an unsettling thought for most people.

With new data laws and lots of bad press, Facebook has started working to collect less information on billions of Instagram and Facebook users, and improve the security of that data. However, Facebook is an advertising company at its core, and they will always probably know more about you than you expect. It’s just a matter of time until Facebook slips up again.

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