What Does Facebook Know About You?
The past few years have been rough for Facebook. "Facebook Live" went through a period where it was used to broadcast criminal activity, their ad network was manipulated by Russian propaganda during various elections (not just American elections, but French, German and Canadian too), and now there's been a massive data break of over 50 million users. Understandingly, a lot of people want to jump ship on Facebook. It just knows too much about us.
But how much does it know?
The answer depends on how often you use it. It either a) knows more than you'd like it to know or b) everything. So let's talk about it.
When you first sign up for Facebook, you give them a lot of information about you. You tell them your name, your phone number, your birth date, where you live, what you do, your interests, etc. By adding these tiny bits of information, Facebook can piece together your life. Oh, you were born in Yorkton in 1974 and attended Yorkton Regional High School? So did these four hundred people. Oh, you we work for the municipal government in finance? So do these fifteen people. Oh, you "liked" your local church on Facebook? So have these two dozen people.
Quickly a "network" of people start to form around you, made of people you do and don't know. The really connecting piece is when you add your phone-number to Facebook, even if you keep it hidden so people can't see it. Other users (including you) often sync or upload their phone contacts to Facebook on a regular basis. Is your phone-number is somebody else's phone book? Now they're one of your recommended friends.
Another way Facebook knows about you is from the pages you like and the groups you follow. Do you follow a local photography group on Facebook? Now Facebook knows your hobby. Do you "like" a certain ethnic restaurant on Facebook? Now you're going to see a lot more of their kinds of food.
This is only a tip of the iceberg of what Facebook knows about you. This is information we willingly give away. But the information it collects is a lot more than that.
By saying "non-consensual", I'm not saying Facebook is taking this without you knowing. It told you it would in its Terms and Agreements. You remember reading those thoroughly, right? Probably not. But you said you did so that's all Facebook needs to begin collecting massive troves of information about you.
The first thing Facebook can do is track your location, especially if you use a mobile device. This might not seem too bad, but people are creatures of habit. You wake up, you go to work, you go out for lunch, you go home, you might go out for the night, and then you go to bed. You repeat that five times a week, 52 weeks in a year. Facebook knows where you work, where you shop and where you spend your free time. Are you going out for lunch and there's a pizza store nearby offering 25% off their regular pricing? Facebook will show you that ad. Do you visit the grocery store every 2 weeks on a regular basis? You're probably buying milk. Do you go to the bar every Saturday? Here's new menu items are bars close to you.
Knowing your position helps Facebook dictate what ads to show you. This, plus the consensual information you gave them earlier helps them narrow down what you might be interested in seeing. Are you suddenly visiting a location where another Facebook user of a different gender lives? Either you're stalking them or you have a relationship forming. Chances are Facebook knows when a relationship begins long before you make it "Facebook official".
Beyond tracking your every movement IRL (that means "in real life", mom), Facebook also tracks your movement online. Facebook allows web developers to add a script onto their site called a "Facebook Pixel". This tracks what you do on other sites too. Are you often reading about holistic medicines? Well, guess what ads you're going to see on Facebook. Looking for romance novels, summer dresses, pizza recipes or how to become an entrepreneur? The moment you leave that site and come back to Facebook, Facebook will show you ads all about it.
Sometimes you don't even have to look up something for Facebook to know you're interested in it. Let's say you add a new friend on Facebook who is really into anime. You want to built a relationship with this person because they're attractive, powerful or they're just somebody new and your cats aren't good conversationalists. You talk to this person more and more and even though you don't have similar interests, Facebook sees this as a new "budding relationship" and tries to get you to "like" the same things you friend likes, like anime. Sometimes this can be something similar, like local restaurants or groups, but it can even be as wild as political ideas, ranging from modest to extreme. If your new friend follows a bunch of KKK, alt-right and Neo-Nazi pages, or visits their websites often enough, you will start seeing ads for that kind of ideology. Your friends with this person, so why wouldn't you like the same crazy things they do?
Facebook also tracks what you say online, and why wouldn't it? There's no better way to hear what their user is feeling or expressing than actually listening to them. Are you often complaining about your car breaking down, or how badly you need a vacation? Do you often talk about Monat hair supplies, or how much you despise your neighbor? Facebook will turn these around and show you content curated just for you. Even if you type a status update, then delete it, then type it and then delete it, Facebook still knows what you're saying. You might not have told the world, but you still told Facebook.
The same goes for content written in Facebook's Messanger app. Facebook not only knows who you talk to, but what you're talking about. Is it something public like where you're going to lunch tomorrow, or something private a broken marriage? Facebook knows it, and the longer you talk to somebody the more it knows about your life.
Speaking of apps, Facebook owns many popular apps like Instagram or WhatsApp. If you "follow" somebody on Instagram and like their photos enough, they might just pop up in your recommended friends list on Facebook too.
Facebook (and Twitter too, but that's another can of worms) also knows your financial situation. Some people complain online about how poor they are, but others (me, please send money) don't. Facebook knows how you're sitting financially, and knows if they should be offering you ads for cheaper products ($5 pizzas) or more expensive products ($60 steak and lobster). Facebook also knows this because they have bought and sold your credit information. In 2014 they also began collecting credit card information from people who purchased products on their site.
What Doesn't Facebook Collect About Me?
So, Facebook knows your age, where you live, where you work, where you shop, who you vote for, who you're friends with, who you're "friends" with, what you talk about online, where you shop online, where you want to go for a vacation, and just about everything else about you. But what doesn't Facebook collect?
According to Facebook, they do not listen in on your phone conversations. The reason is simple: people never say what they mean. People talk full of sarcasm, colloquial terms, vague references, and often lie. Facebook doesn't have the capacity to listen to every conversation happening around the world at any given time, parse it for potentially useful phrases and then try and figure out what you're talking about. WIRED did a great article about this, crunching the numbers to show why it's not feasible. Yes, Facebook could listen for key words like "where can I shop for..." or "how do I get to..." but the list would be exhausting, and it would be even longer if you add in all the dozens of langues Facebook supports.
The biggest reason why Facebook doesn't listen to your conversation is because it doesn't have to. It already knows everything about you.
Why does Facebook care so much about me?
It may seem like Facebook is going through a lot to figure out who you are, but it doesn't actually care about you as an individual. Instead, Facebook cares about you as a "group". Facebook wants to figure out human behavior so that it can take this information, turn it around and present it to investors. Your individual quirks don't matter that much to Facebook. Instead it wants to make connections between you and people similar. It wants to collect massive amounts of data to then make a profit off it. This is called "Big Data".
My favourite story about Big Data doesn't come from Facebook, but from Target. A lot of companies track what you buy from them via point reward cards so that they can better curate ads towards you. If you only ever buy Doritoes and Dr. Pepper, you probably aren't interested in baby clothes. Target does it as well, but also tracks what you're looking for online. A fifteen year old girl in the United States had a Target account and was shopping online, and Target noticed a change in her behavior. Target's algorithm tweaked the ads to show her and sent her a flyer a few weeks later, full of baby supplies for expecting mothers. The girl was mortified, and her father was angry. How dare Target assume his daughter was pregnant? He made a huge fuss about it and took his daughter to the doctor. Turns out the daughter was pregnant, even though she wasn't aware of it at the time. If Target can make this kind of decision based on your browsing habits on their website, imagine what Facebook can do with your information.
After every security blow up, things like #DeleteFacebook start trending on social media. Unfortunately, every social media does this kind of data collecting. Google does it, Twitter does it, YouTube does it, Linkedin does it, PornHub* does it, they all do it. To social media platforms, you are their product. They want to know as much as possible about you so they can "sell" you to their advertisers.
If you want to read more about what Facebook collects about you, please read You Probably Don’t Know All the Ways Facebook Tracks You, Here's What Facebook Can Do With Your Personal Data in the Name of Science and 98 personal data points that Facebook uses to target ads to you.
*The porn industry is especially creative with their information, since a lot of people browse their content anonymously. But even with Incognito Mode turned on, porn websites still know who you are by things like the unique serial number on your audio card, the fonts on your computer which are unique to every user, your IP address, your location and your browsing history. It's quiet impressive what they can do with "anonymous" data, but that's for another article.