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

When it comes to Facebook, there are two kinds of information privacy: what other people can see about you, and what Facebook itself can track.  

And since it’s recently come to light that the social media giant handed over raw data about 50+ million of their users to political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 US presidential election, you might be more concerned with the latter.

Here, we’ll briefly outline exactly what Facebook knows about you, how it might impact your life, and how you can fix the situation and still enjoy using the platform.

But, have you ever wondered why Facebook wants to know so much about you in the first place? One word: marketing.

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, including generic ones like “married individuals aged 30-40 living in Seattle,” along with more detailed parameters like “those who like movies and who drive a Toyota.” 

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 a few basic (and not so basic) pieces of 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 consist of those in their mid-40s to mid-60s who earn middle incomes and often reside in urban, high-end, multi-family dwellings.

  • Career Building are young, childless, single individuals who live in a mix of condos and single-family homes, whether as renters or first-time homeowners.

  • Outward Bound constitutes rural, middle-class homeowners, most without children and who drive compact or full-size pickup trucks. 

  • Solo and Stable are single homeowners, primarily work in white-collar positions, and earn an average middle-class income.

  • Tots & Toys are mostly well-educated, affluent homeowner couples in single-family dwellings with preschool-age children. Both tend to work.

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.

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

Facebook's Audience Insights

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: the company also tracks users’ browsing habits—even after leaving 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,” blogger and hacker Nik Cubrilovic outlined in a post reported by PCmag.

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

How personal? According to a 2014 The Atlantic article, “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.”

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.

And while Business Insider’s Avery Hartmans reports that “we'll most likely never know exactly what information Cambridge Analytica obtained from Facebook users,” some of these 3,000 data segments likely include:

  • About me
  • Actions
  • Activities
  • Birthday
  • Check-ins
  • Education history
  • Events
  • Games activity
  • Groups
  • Hometown
  • Interests
  • Likes
  • Location
  • Notes
  • Online presence
  • Photo and video tags
  • Photos
  • Questions
  • Relationship details
  • Relationships
  • Religion
  • Politics
  • Status
  • Subscriptions
  • Website
  • Work history

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 by piggybacking off of connections with friends to pimp out pages—sometimes in your name.

For example, if you encounter a post from an individual or organization you previously never knew about, it’s easy to assume that one of your friends found the information useful in some way and purposely shared it on their timeline. However, this likely isn’t the case. Instead, they probably clicked the post’s ‘like’ button without giving it a second thought.

How to make sure? Check their profile. If you don't see the post, then it wasn’t your friend who decided you might appreciate it—it was EdgeRank in action.

Granted, nothing nefarious is going on here; EdgeRank simply ‘decided’ that you and your friend might have aligned interests, and therefore decided to show you something they were also curious about.

Of course, this could be problematic if your news feed starts filling up with content you’re not interested in, or promotes 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

Although Facebook promises to anonymize all your data before sharing it with advertisers (meaning that even though businesses might have your statistics on gender, education, and interests, they can’t connect you personally to a name or email address), a 2014 Pew Research survey found that:

  • “80% of those who use social networking sites say they are concerned about third parties like advertisers or businesses accessing the data they share on these sites,” while

  • “91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.”

If you count yourself among these numbers, is it possible to rectify the situation?

How to Limit Facebook’s Information Gathering Abilities

As you can see, the more information you provide to Facebook—such as your age, your location, where you work, your education level, and the other pages you like—the more likely it is they (or more accurately, third-party companies they sell to) will target you and your friends with related advertisements.

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

  • Customizable browser plug-ins like Social Fixer can also help filter your news feed from political discussions, re-liked posts, as well as sponsored stories.

  • Lifehacker advises that 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. Note: 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, such as visiting AboutAds.info, which will automatically scan your browser, notify you of any companies customizing ads on it, and then allow you to opt out individually or all at once.

Have Realistic Expectations Regarding Your Facebook Privacy

According to Facebook’s 2017 income statement, the company spent nearly $15 billion on operating expenses last year, a cost which Investopedia reports is largely recouped through digital advertising. And in order to maximize revenue, they need to provide advertisers with as much information as possible to ensure their message resonates with the right customer.

Bottom line: While Facebook users aren’t required to pay for the company’s services with cash, they will pay with their data—unless you’re careful about which things you like.

Also, check your privacy settings, including whether or not any apps you use can visibly post to others on your behalf. Because currently, you can’t choose what information will land in others’ news feeds and you can’t see which of your information has already been shared.

Based on the ongoing debacle related to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook recently announced they will redesign “the settings menu on mobile devices, consolidating privacy options in one place, rather than sending users to some 20 different screens,” so the process of doing so should soon be much easier.

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.

Does the amount of information Facebook gathers give you the heebie-jeebies? We share how to delete your account here: How to Delete Your Social Media Accounts.

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.

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!