What does Facebook actually know about you?

Emma McGowan 22 Jun 2021

Spoiler alert: Facebook knows a lot about me. And you. And your mom and grandma.

Strap in, kids, because this one is going to be a doozy: This week’s What Does The Internet Know About Me? is all about Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram. Since Zuck pretty much invented the “free” service in exchange for all of your personal information business model, you know this one is going to be extensive. 

Spoiler alert: Facebook knows a lot about me. And you. And your mom. And your grandma. And literally everyone in your life unless they’re a true Luddite and don’t use any kind of technology at all. 

Before I get into the specifics, though, I need to get up on a soapbox about something. Facebook’s “Privacy Principles” page is written in plain English, which is great, but is also so full of tech company doublespeak that it has my head spinning. 

For example, they start with “We give you control of your privacy.” That statement just isn’t true. It’s well documented that Facebook tracks people across the web, often without their knowledge, and that they even had/maybe still have “shadow accounts” of people who aren’t even on the site. Like, my mother has literally never been on Facebook and I’m sure they still have information about her through Facebook pixel

The Privacy Principles site also says “We design privacy into our products from the outset.” That one made me actually groan out loud for how ridiculous it is. Facebook’s entire business model — which raked in $8.6 billion in 2020 — is built around invasively collecting information about users, aggregating it, and selling it to the highest bidder. Privacy from the outset? Please. Just stop. 

Okay, I’m going to get unnecessarily angry if I keep analyzing each bit of this “Privacy Principles” document, so I’m going to step away from and look more specifically at what Facebook and Instagram know about me. Get ready — it’s a doozy.

What does Facebook track about me?

Let’s start with what Facebook and Instagram know about me, the human. Considering the fact that I’ve been on Facebook since 2005, they know a lot. They know how my interests have changed over time. Who my romantic partner is now — and who my romantic partners in the past were. They know who I’m related to, what my interests are, what my face looks like, who my friends are, all of the content of all of the Messenger threads I’ve been in over the past 15 years, anything other people have shared about me, my location, past locations, stores near me, places I like to go… The list continues. Seriously: Those are just things I thought of off the top of my head that I’ve willingly shared with/on Facebook over the years. 

Then let’s add in the datasets that Instagram has about me. While IG was originally just a place for me to post overly-filtered selfies, it’s evolved into a finely-tailored ad machine. I’m low key addicted to the app, periodically taking it off my phone just to put it back on again a day later. I love looking at pretty things and, more importantly to the Instagram algorithm, buying pretty things. So IG knows not only who my friends are based on who I interact with the most, but also the items and objects I’m most likely to buy. 

Which, let’s be real, are 90% vintage clothing and 10% cat toys. 

Facebook also tracks me across the internet through the aforementioned Facebook pixel, which is a tracker that they offer sites for free in order to provide targeted advertising. Of course, while the tracker is “free,” it’s not free to us, the end user: we pay for it with personal information. 

Finally, if I chose to sign in to any other site or app with my Facebook login info (which is something I don’t do anymore but definitely did in the past), Facebook also exchanges information with that site or app about my behaviors to further build out their ad-selling profile of me. 

On the technical side, Facebook loves to scoop as much metadata as possible. I’m just going to copy/paste directly from their Data Policy document for this one, because it’s extensive. The following bullet points are verbatim, word for word, from Facebook.

  • Device attributes: information such as the operating system, hardware and software versions, battery level, signal strength, available storage space, browser type, app and file names and types, and plugins.

  • Device operations: information about operations and behaviors performed on the device, such as whether a window is foregrounded or backgrounded, or mouse movements (which can help distinguish humans from bots).

  • Identifiers: unique identifiers, device IDs, and other identifiers, such as from games, apps or accounts you use, and Family Device IDs (or other identifiers unique to Facebook Company Products associated with the same device or account).

  • Device signals: Bluetooth signals, and information about nearby Wi-Fi access points, beacons, and cell towers.

  • Data from device settings: information you allow us to receive through device settings you turn on, such as access to your GPS location, camera or photos.

  • Network and connections: information such as the name of your mobile operator or ISP, language, time zone, mobile phone number, IP address, connection speed and, in some cases, information about other devices that are nearby or on your network, so we can do things like help you stream a video from your phone to your TV.

  • Cookie data: data from cookies stored on your device, including cookie IDs and settings. Learn more about how we use cookies in the Facebook Cookies Policy and Instagram Cookies Policy.

...I told you all that it was a doozy.

Does Facebook sell my data?

Like all companies online, Facebook uses some of my data to deliver the services that I want from it. (Which, for me, is mainly the aforementioned shopping, as well as 90 Day Fiancé podcast fan groups and Messenger.) But they also use it to create the most invasive profile of all users in order to sell targeted advertising space. They’ve created an entire economy (I’ll refer you back to that $86 billion mentioned above) around the idea that invading our privacy is worth it for businesses to “thrive.” 

Should I care that Facebook collects my data?

While Facebook has been full steam ahead on this for almost two decades now, cracks are starting to show. People are starting to wise up to the fact Facebook has been quietly amassing and using this data for years. And while targeted ads are creepy enough, political events like the US presidential elections and the attempted coup — as well as genocide and civil war in Myanmar and a military coup in Thailand — are highlighting the ways that this data can be used to extremely negative real-world effects. We’ve all let Zuckerberg & Co. conduct the biggest mass surveillance in human history, with very few negative consequences on their end. 

But, on the other hand, I still sign in to Facebook every day to use their Messenger. I started using it to chat with friends when I was traveling full time and it’s where I still connect with a lot of them. I also participate in Facebook groups that bring me a lot of… Well, joy would be an overstatement. Entertainment is probably a better description. And Instagram is my most-used app on my phone, pretty much always. 

Clearly I find some “value” in these services, even if I hate them and hate the ways that they invade my privacy. It’s a weird dichotomy that I haven’t quite figured out. Why aren’t I willing to give up these services? How much do they really offer me in exchange for what I’ve given them? Not unlike paying for Amazon Prime, I think the exchange might not be worth it. Have we all been duped?

So while I’m not yet ready to give up Facebook and Instagram, there are ways I — and you — can at least restrict some of the information Facebook collects about me. Check out my Facebook Privacy Refresh and Instagram Privacy Refresh for tips on how to limit at least a portion of the tracking. 

And join me in considering giving them up for good. I think it might be time.

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