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What Does Facebook Know About Me?

Last edited: June 24, 2019
Reading time: 6 minutes, 57 seconds

facebook logoWith over 2 billion active users, Facebook is a major force for social change in the world today. The appeal of the site spans across all demographics and to virtually every country around the globe. Privacy experts have long been concerned about how Facebook collects and uses information. With the latest scandals in the news, more people are starting to worry about their privacy on Facebook. Most people have little idea of the detailed user profiles Facebook creates. Based on activity on and off the site, Facebook knows more about you than many of your closest friends.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Most people are aware that Facebook knows some things about us and uses that information to deliver ads that we would be more interested in seeing. This may seem like a small tidbit or two used for harmless purposes. For example, you search for a product on Amazon, and later you see an ad for that product on Facebook. This seems harmless, and possibly even helpful. Because we only see a small effect on our ads, we often cannot see the intricate profile Facebook has on each of us.

The reality of the situation is that Facebook knows more about you than you likely suspect. Facebook reported earnings for the 1st quarter of 2018 of $11.97 billion. Reaching close to two billion people around the globe, this staggering income is almost entirely from marketing and advertising revenue. In the United States, Facebook brought in over $26 per user for the 4th quarter of 2017. Facebook’s worldwide average was over $6 per user. Facebook can command that kind of revenue because of targeted ads. As a result advertisers have the ability to deliver eerily specific ads that are highly effective.

Facebook Knows What You Think

Discussions of religion and politics are often controversial. They carry the potential for hurt feelings and unintended offenses. For that reason, many people frequently avoid discussing these subjects. It’s not uncommon for even close friends to be unaware of many of our more controversial opinions. This often shows up in major elections where most of the people you know may appear to be strongly opposed to a candidate who ends up winning. We don’t always reveal our true opinions of these things to our friends.

Not so with Facebook. The European Union enacts laws to protect privacy on these topics not covered by US laws. Facebook collects information about you on even these sensitive topics. Hidden under the settings menu in Facebook is a menu that allows you to see some of the information Facebook collects about you. Your US politics section reveals what Facebook knows about your political opinions. While your friends might believe you are a very middle of the road kind of person, Facebook knows whether you are very conservative or very liberal.

Knowing your political leanings helps Facebook determine which advertisements would be more effective. Even ads for the same product may be tailored to appeal more to one group or another. Political advertisements are especially tailored to reach specific targets.

Facebook Knows Where You Are

More than 75 percent of Facebook users access the platform on a mobile device. The convenience of being able to pop up the Facebook app while out and about is too good for most people to pass up. Most people don’t give a second thought to the privacy implications of having the app on their phone. Facebook uses location data from your phone to track where you are every moment of the day. How much can Facebook learn from your location?

Location History

Facebook now makes it possible to access your location history online. Log in and you can see everywhere you have been with the Facebook app on your phone. From this detailed log, Facebook can easily determine where you live. While many attempt to protect their privacy by omitting this information from their profile. While you can hide information from the public, Facebook will still see it. By spotting trends in your daily route, Facebook can determine where you work. Your location shows where you drop off your kids for school. By knowing what type of school you drop them off at, Facebook can learn the approximate ages of your children. Facebook can learn your favorite places to shop, how long you like to linger in those stores, and which day of the week you are most likely to shop.

Facebook can use location data to know when you visit a car dealership. Advertisers receive an alert that now might be a good time for some car ads in your Feed. Visit a gynecologist a few times in several weeks and you may start seeing ads for baby products in your feed.

How Do They Do It?

Facebook gains this detailed location information through many sources. Nearby Wi-Fi access points, Bluetooth signals, and mobile towers reveal where you are. Even with GPS off, these methods will provide an accurate predictor of your current location. Facebook can even determine location from what your camera sees, or from what is in the background of your photos. This is not speculation, this is spelled out in Facebook’s data policy available to the public.

Facebook Knows Everything

Facebook tracks every post you click “like” on. It tracks every video you watch and how long you watch that video. Moreover, every friend request you approve or deny, and every ad you click feed its data mine. Combining all the channels of data Facebook has at its disposal allows the company to create a detailed profile of who you are. Facebook has over 1,300 categories for advertisers to narrow down their targeting information.

Your Finances

Facebook categorizes you by the number of credit cards you own. It has a category for whether you are an engaged shopper likely to click on an interesting link. Facebook knows how long you have used a mobile device and who your carrier is. The social media platform tracks whether you own a home or rent, how much land you home is situated on, and much more.

Facebook isn’t just concerned with what users do online, it also buys information about your offline spending habits. By gathering information about your credit or debit card usage off the internet, it can better target your data. This allows the company to present a better profile to advertisers.

Partnering up With Advertisers

Facebook also collects data from advertisers. Data provided to a company that partners with Facebook will be shared to your profile. Other advertisers collect information about how you interact with their websites. This may also be shared to Facebook. By piecing together this information from advertisers, Facebook gains further insights into your behavior and activity online. This makes Facebook’s profile of you more attractive to advertisers. The better your profile, the more profitable you are to the company.

Big Data Research

Facebook also aggregates information for groups of users. The company may then turn and sell this information to companies that perform analysis and research for Facebook. They also sell the aggregate information to vendors and service providers. They sell this information to academics and others doing scholarly research. Facebook also provides information to law enforcement or in response to legal requests.

How Can I Better Protect My Privacy?

Facebook is a free service. This helps draw in users that would otherwise not be able to use the service. Many people are willing to surrender their privacy in exchange for more relevant advertising and access to Facebook. But if you prefer to restrict some of your data, there are some steps you can take.

First, Facebook’s privacy settings allow you to rein in some of the ways your information is collected and used. This will allow you to change Facebook’s facial recognition settings, which apps have access to your account information, the types of ads Facebook knows you are interested in, and more.

To make your data and activities online more anonymous, consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Check out our guide to picking the right VPN for your needs. A VPN functions as a go-between distancing you from the information you send and receive online. A good VPN service is easy to setup and use and will help safeguard your privacy while still being able to access Facebook and other services you depend on.

Tech journalist
Tove has been working for VPNoverview since 2017 as a journalist covering cybersecurity and privacy developments. Since 2019 she is VPNoverview.com's cybersecurity news coordinator.

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