What Facebook Knows About You (and How They Profit Off Your Private Info)

If you have hundreds of Facebook friends, you might have already considered if any of them are actually eager to learn more about you. The same can’t be said for the platform itself.

Facebook wants to know where you're from, how old you are, who you're friends with, what industry you work in, your likes, your relationship status, where you vacation—the list goes on and on.

It’s important to remember that there are two kinds of information privacy on Facebook: the kind that has to do with what other people can see about you, and the kind that has to do with what Facebook itself can track. The information we’re talking about falls into the latter.

Why does Facebook want to know so much about you? Because marketers do.

What Kind of Information Does Facebook “Like”

When an advertiser creates an ad on Facebook, they can select all sorts of parameters so they reach the right people. An example of a parameter would be: “Someone engaged to be married, who lives in Seattle, between the ages of 30-40.”

That's simple, but advertisers can actually narrow that down to insane specifics, like “Someone engaged to be married, who lives in Seattle, between the ages of 30-40, who likes movies, and who drives a Toyota.” If your profile fits those parameters, you'll likely see the ad.

To help you understand what kind of information Facebook finds valuable, I thought I’d share the “insights” Facebook makes available to me, an advertiser, using an old page I used to manage.

Facebook's Audience InsightsFacebook’s Audience Insights

The Facebook page was for a non-profit organization offering parents articles and tips on how to keep their children safe from predators. I would use the following data to try and craft posts that were tailored to our targeted audience—just like you’d make assumptions about someone if told some basic (and not so basic) information.

Facebook's Audience Insights

As you can see, our audience’s gender ratio was nearly split down the middle—meaning we were reaching both moms and dads almost as effectively.

Facebook also gives advertisers a summary of what kind of lifestyle their audience lives, using quirky names such as Metro Mix or Tots and Toys. Who fits into which? According to Facebook:

  • Metro Mix households live in the nation's mega-markets. In their mid-40s to mid-60s and with middle incomes, this group of diverse urbanites resides in expensive multi-family dwellings.
  • Career Building is made up of young, childless singles. They are a mix of mobile renters and first-time homeowners, living in condos and single-family houses.
  • Outward Bound are people with middle-income, rural households, most without children, but a few with some toddlers, preschool, and grade school children. Home ownerships dominates this cluster, along with their tendency to drive compact or full-size pickup trucks. 
  • Solo and Stable are singles and homeowners who work in mainly white-collar professional, administrative and managerial jobs. Their education and income place them about average in the middle class.
  • Tots & Toys is dominated by affluent and well-educated working couples with preschool-age children. They are homeowners, mainly in single-family houses.

Facebook's Audience Insights

The above graph shows that our audience was dominated by those who fell into Career Building and Solid Single Parents households. When managing the page, I would have used that information to reassess what we were posting—why were we of interest to young, childless singles? I’d then to try and capture more of the Toys and Tots market by writing content aimed at their interests instead.

Facebook's Audience Insights

If that wasn’t enough information, Facebook also shares your relationship status, education level, where you live, and much more. If you’d like to understand more about what information is available, you can try your hand at creating an ad.

Want to have some fun? Follow in the footsteps of My Social Sherpa, who used social media skills and targeted Facebook advertising to prank his friend with eerily personal advertisements.

Friends with too much time on their hands aside, how does Facebook gather so much information about you?

Facebook Gathers Information Even When You’re Not Looking

While the social platform’s intentions might not surprise you, their lack of boundaries might: As Facebook continues to expand their advertising business, the company has also begun tracking users’ Web-browsing habits (as Google and many other online advertisers do) as well as their activity on mobile apps other than Facebook.

That’s right, Facebook is digging into information from your smartphone and tracking the other websites you visit even after you leave their website

“Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit. The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions,” explained Software developer Dave Winer to PCmag.com.

It’s all in service of helping advertisers target you with ever-more-personalized ads.

How personal? Data broker Acxiom told the FTC it has some 3,000 data segments for nearly every consumer in America. And Datalogix, which works with Facebook, has personal information about almost every U.S. household, according to the FTC.

Acxiom, by the way, is credited for providing Facebook with all that neat data I shared above—as well as deciding if you’re Solo and Stable or Outward Bound.

How Facebook’s Information Gathering Affects You

Some people don’t like the amount of information Facebook gathers on principle—which is understandable. Others simply shrug their shoulders, unsure of how all this data affects their day-to-day use of social media.

Enter EdgeRank

One way Facebook utilizes your information is piggybacking off of connections with friends to pimp out pages—sometimes in your name.

For example, you might see a post in your news feed from a group you've never heard of, like a heartwarming photo or a campaign for a cause, you might assume it’s because your friend chose to share it with their followers by clicking the “share” button. But, the odds are that's not the case. Instead, they likely thought it was good, clicked Like, and moved on, without the intention of pushing it into your feed.

A quick way to check is to visit their profile directly: if you don't see the post there, then Facebook decided that you might like to see it too, not your friend.

This is EdgeRank in action. It's not exactly nefarious, it’s just Facebook deciding that your friends may have similar interests and may like what you like. The downside is that it populates your news feed with photos and updates from pages you may have no interest in, and does the same to your friends—sometimes promoting things you like that you would have preferred to keep quiet, like an undying love of the movie The Notebook or rooting for the New York Yankees.

Connecting You With Your Data

If you’re not concerned about targeted advertisements, why should you care what Facebook knows about you?

The company insists that you shouldn’t—as you can see from the images above, Facebook anonymizes all your data before sharing it with advertisers. This means that even though businesses might have statistics on gender, education, and interests, they can’t connect you personally to a name or email address.

However, a Pew Research survey finds that 91 percent of U.S. adults believe consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies. More importantly, 80 percent of social media users say they’re concerned about third parties accessing the data they share there.

How To Fix Facebook’s Information Gathering Abilities

It boils down to this: the more information you put about yourself on Facebook, the more they can use to target ads to you and your friends. This includes where you live, your age, where (and if) you graduated college, the companies, brands, and activities you like, and even where you work.

A simple solution to minimizing how many of your interests Facebook can capitalize on is limiting your use of the Like button. Additionally, hide those pages you like from your profile and set their posting rights to “only me.”

You can also use Social Fixer to trim down those types of re-liked posts in your own feed, removing the temptation to like them yourself.

Another tip is to set up a second Facebook account for “liking” purposes. A second account, one that you only use for things like promotions and discounts, is invaluable—stuff it full of as much or as little information as you choose to provide, and then use it instead of your main account.

You can even use it as a way to see what Facebook is sharing from your primary account without you knowing, although the specifics vary from friend to friend. (Do note that Facebook's policy is one person-one account, so you’d likely be violating their Terms of Service by doing this. Just something to keep in mind.)

You can also take steps to keep Facebook out of your off-line usage. You remember we stated that Facebook is now following users off of their platform, using cookies and their mobile app to gather even more data?

Users can opt out of such extended tracking, but they will have to visit a special ad industry website and adjust their smartphone settings to do so.

Have Realistic Expectations Regarding Your Facebook Privacy

The truth is that Facebook is a free service to users. It needs to make money somehow, and that money will be made using your data. Accepting that, the question is whether Facebook uses your data or if they give it to someone else, and how that information is used.

The moral of the story here is three-fold: Be careful with the things you like, because it's not just things you choose to share that end up in your friends’ news feeds. More frustrating, you can’t even go to your profile to see what’s been shared on your behalf. 

This means that wanton usage of the Like button makes it impossible to tell what updates friends are seeing until someone pings you to ask why you’ve been liking so many posts from one particular Facebook group lately, or why the only thing you seem to share these days are someone else’s photos.

It’s also important to stay on top of your privacy settings, the post visibility of apps you use (“Only Me” is your friend), and watch what you click “Share” on.

Finally, remember that marketers will continue working to find out everything they can about you, your spending habits, and what might make you inclined to buy. In this light, Facebook should by no means be made into a corporate pariah—essentially everything you do online is fair game and it’s up to each of us to surf and share responsibly.

Learn More: 5 Facebook Posts That Put Your Home & Family At Risk

Does the amount of information Facebook gathers give you the heebie-jeebies? We share how to delete your account here: Know How to Quit Social Media (and When You Should).


Sign Up for HighYa Newsletter

Sign up for HighYa newsletter and get our best content delivered in your inbox as well as 3 free eBooks to help you save money and shop smarter. Enter your email below to get started!