Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook Data Breach are still very much dominating the news, especially with the recent hearing involving Mark Zuckerberg. While changes to Facebook’s approach to Data Security and Privacy are (hopefully) imminent, we actually went ahead and checked what of our data Facebook actually saves and uses. We downloaded a copy of our Facebook data and looked closely what Facebook actually has on us.
So Cambridge Analytica may have used your personal information to run ad campaigns, as does Facebook itself on a regular basis. The entire business concept of Facebook relies on running ads tailored to your interest. As Facebook only gets paid for ads when you click or interact with them, not for just viewing them, they take extra care to make sure they know everything about you in great detail. But just how much do they actually know? While we may not be aware of everything Facebook does have on us, some of it is out in the open and can be accessed or downloaded from your Facebook settings.
First things first, I actually went ahead and downloaded a copy of (allegedly) all the data Facebook has on me. It’s not an instantaneous download and takes a little bit to become available, so while we wait, why don’t we check out what we can already see in our very Facebook settings?
The Obvious First: Facebook Posts and Messages
We mature over time, so going back to your Facebook roots can be incredibly horrific. Meeting your naive self almost ten years ago can be a true test of not succumbing to self-loathing. The technology was new, you were still young and impressionable. Of course, if you’ve never deleted anything, Facebook held on to every single activity, like, message, post or interaction on its platform religiously.
A quick stroll through your activity log or Facebook profile will make that incredibly apparent to you. Thankfully you can limit past posts to be, at least, only visible for friends or people tagged in them. The only other option for you is to go back and to delete, which can be a mammoth project in and of its own, but it may at least show you just how much information you have fed the Facebook giant already. Let that be a lesson.
The Interesting Part: What Data is Used and Collected by Facebook to Run Ads?
How and why we’re targeted by ads is probably the most ominous part of Facebook, yet it is currently visible in our settings when navigating to the Ads part. If you weren’t sure just how much Facebook knows about you and how many other companies actually know about you and actively target you, this is the place that will show you just that.
1. Your Interests and Likes
Facebook not only uses your likes to determine what you’re interested in but also know what apps you use based on your log-in behavior and (supposedly) phone use.
2. Advertisers You’ve Interacted With
Now we are getting into the nitty-gritty parts of Ads. Under “Advertisers you’ve interacted with” are five subcategories, most of which are fairly straightforward: Ads you clicked, apps you’ve used, ads you’ve visited and ads you’ve hidden. There is, however, another category that is a bit more unsettling.
The primary category here is Advertisers “who have added their contact list to Facebook” with further clarification reading “These advertisers are running ads using a contact list they uploaded that includes contact info you shared with them or with one of their data partners.”
What follows is a list of advertisers (read: site and organizations active on Facebook) running ads based on their own data and contacts which include you. The results of this tab can be mind-boggling as it may include companies or sites you never heard of or interacted with, but which have independently obtained your contact details and used them on Facebook to run ads. This may be due to being enrolled in a newsletter, buying a service or actually your own bank using your email address to target you for new offers on Facebook.
3. Your Facebook Ad Information
Ready to go freaky? Facebook categorizes its users based on interests and facts about their behavior or environment in order to target ads to them more conveniently. We, as we are a site active on Facebook, already know that. Those categories can get awfully specific, for example, we could run a Facebook ad targeted on Hispanics in the USA with the option to distinguish how much English the recipients should speak.
Facebook lets you currently view what categories you belong to, including political opinions, interests, and living conditions. In my case it’s actually not too disturbing, identifying me as a frequent traveler and German expat living mainly in Housemate-based households, being an early adopter of technology and what devices and browser I own/use. Funny enough, although I do write about political topics, Facebook doesn’t seem to know how to categorize me politically. My win I guess.
4. Miscellaneous Ad Settings
On top of that, we can choose to omit certain information from ads, such as relationship and job-related information. We can also hide certain ad topics, in my case alcohol, parenting, and pets. I don’t know if these are universal or just for me, because parenting and pets seem odd topics to be able to block out by default.
The Grand Finale: What Else Does Facebook Know?
By the time we have assessed the wealth of ad information, our actual data is ready to be downloaded from Facebook. This is the point where we can actually compare if there’s anything still saved on Facebook servers without being readily accessible on the website.
Your personal Facebook data copy comes in the form of a .zip archive that unveils an offline .html site you can interactively click through, unveiling all your info. While it does entail most of what can be viewed online, there are differences.
A Few Nasty Surprises
The data has, unsurprisingly, accurate accounts of your past posting and like activity, as well as what friends you have and on what exact date you connected to them. It also includes the email addresses from select friends, probably because they added them publicly to their profile. Messages, surprisingly, included conversations that could not be accessed on my Facebook account anymore for various reasons. Either because they were deleted or because the user didn’t exist anymore. It didn’t include everything I had ever written, but it also didn’t seem to successfully delete everything that I thought was gone for good.
Everyone that has ever used Facebook’s Messenger app knows its persistence on wanting to have access to your phone contacts in order to “connect you to friends”. I never did that, precisely for the reason that I don’t want to share my friend’s phone numbers with Facebook. Turns out, Facebook has them anyway.
A link labeled “Contact Details” in my Facebook data copy had me believe they had maybe obtained my address or something of the like. Instead, I was looking at an exact copy of my phone’s address book with all numbers I had ever in there, old and new, updated up to a few weeks ago. Talk about why and how. Well, actually I know why and how. Nevermind.
Be Aware of the Data you Already Shared with Facebook
Apart from these little shocking moments of data that I surely wasn’t aware of, my data copy included everything I expected it to. IP addresses I logged in from, places I checked in, browser sessions, pictures, videos and everything in between. I knew Facebook had a lot on me, but there were certainly parts I was shocked to discover that there is actually more than what I know about.
The problem is Facebook just keeps changing the way they display and handle settings and user data, completely obscuring the process for the user. All we can hope for is to actually get more means to be in control of what Facebook actually does and obtain. One of these glimmers of hope is actually a new EU law, that will be in effect very soon, promising a greater sense of control that, as Facebook promised, will be adopted worldwide. Until then, all we can do is to be wary and actively check what data we already shared and how we can manage our digital footprint.
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