Whether it's eerily-specific ads popping up in our news feeds, or stories about our data leaking into the wrong hands, there's plenty of evidence that Facebook knows quite a bit about us.
But exactly what information does Facebook have? It's a question we may not want to know the answer to, but one that we can likely deduce. That's right. It's a lot.
Facebook is not the only company that collects data about you. In fact, most of the services you use on your phone, tablet, and computer are probably tracking your activity in one way or another. However, we give Facebook a lot more valuable information than to most other companies, and they know how to use this to generate lots and lots of revenue.
Interestingly, though, people seem to trust Facebook less than other companies when it comes to handling their personal information, so it's worth delving a little deeper into exactly what this social media giant knows about us.
Facebook in 2019: Just How Big Is It?
We don't need a bunch of statistics to know that Facebook plays an important role in our lives, but understanding just how big it is sheds some light on how important it is that Facebook has so much data about its users.
To give you an idea of just how big Facebook is, consider the following:
Facebook is More Than Just Facebook
Over the years, Facebook has grown considerably both in terms of how much revenue it makes as well as users. Here's a snapshot of the journey Facebook has taken since its founding in 2004 to the present day.
The use of these apps means that Facebook has access to you in three different ways, and if you use all these services on a regular basis, then you can bet that Facebook knows quite a bit about who you are and what you do.
How Does Facebook Collect Information About You?
- Facebook collects information about you in a variety of ways, mainly by:
Tracking your activity on its site and family of apps, including posts, comments, messages, reactions, etc.
Tracking your activity on apps you've logged into using your Facebook credentials.
Tracking your engagement with the Facebook plugin installed on third-party sites (the "Like" button.
You can control some of the information that's collected about you by changing your settings. But the catch is that most of Facebook's default privacy settings allow for maximum data collection, meaning if you don't change anything, Facebook will automatically gather data about you.
Facebook is also known for making it difficult for you to prevent them from accessing more of your information. For example, if you download Facebook Messenger for the first time, they make giving them access to your phone's contacts and messages awfully enticing, and they also make it tricky to know you have another option. Check out the screenshots below:
As you can see, they give you the choice between a big, blue "Turn On" button and a much smaller one that reads "Not Now." Then, when you click "Not Now" on the first screen, it says not giving them access means you will need to add your contacts one-by-one.
But this simply isn't true. Your Facebook friends will automatically appear on your list of Messenger contacts, so the only time you would need anything else would be if you were trying to reach someone who had a Messenger account but not one for Facebook, something that rarely occurs.
Again, if you don't care about Facebook having access to your contacts, calls, and messages, then by all means click "Turn On," but this should serve as a reminder that Facebook is always trying to expand what it knows about you.
What Does Facebook Do With the Information it Collects About You?
The information you provide to Facebook is what keeps the company running. They use this data to create detailed profiles of your interests and to place you into groups. Then, they sell access to these groups to their customers, which are companies looking to buy advertisements.
However, at this moment, Facebook does not sell your information to anyone, although after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the public's trust in Facebook is declining.
But, as far as we know, all Facebook does right now is store this data on their servers and use it to sell advertisements. However, because they have so much information about so many people, they are able to sell advertisements that are more effective, meaning people are willing to spend more money to run them. This helps explain why Facebook is one of the richest and most powerful companies in the entire world.
What Information Does Facebook Collect About You?
Now that you know why and how Facebook collects data about you, here's a snapshot of the exact information they have. Remember, this will vary depending on your personal settings, but chances are high that Facebook has records of your activity in many of the following categories.
Your Posts and Comments
This one shouldn't be much of a surprise. Facebook records everything you post onto your timeline and anything others post onto yours, as well as every comment you leave and "like" you give. They then have their AI algorithms digest this information to help them deliver a better ad experience.
Events You Attend
If you are invited to an event via Facebook, and you indicate you will be attending, Facebook records this information and stores in in your account.
Calls and Messages
Facebook records all of the messages you send over its Messenger platform, as we would expect them to do. But if you allow Facebook access to your phone, something many of us do when we use the Messenger app, then you are granting Facebook the right to record your phone calls and messages, and you can be certain that it does just that.
Again, if you make a post on Facebook and allow the app to access your phone's location, then you are allowing Facebook to record information about your location. This means that whenever you are signed into the app, which let's face it, is all of the time for most of us, Facebook is recording your location information.
If you don't like this, then you can simply go into your phone's settings and change your app preferences to deny the Facebook app access to your location, although this may diminish your ability to use some features.
This is more information that Facebook surmises about you than it collects, but it's all part of the same process. Based on the information you give Facebook, from your browsing history to your likes and dislikes, a list is generated of your relevant interests. Then, when an advertiser is looking to target people with that interest set, Facebook will point them to the people who've indicated they are part of that group.
They do this with shocking effectiveness, which is part of the reason why Facebook has so much money.
Additionally, the more information we give them, the better they get at delivering effective ads, which means they get to charge more. So, in the end, we shouldn't be surprised that Facebook wants to collect as much information about you as possible. It's the lifeblood of their business.
Web and App Activity
Depending on how you use Facebook, it might be gathering information about you when you're not even on their website. Facebook does this in a number of ways, the most common being the Facebook login option.
Facebook has partnered with countless services to let you sign into third party apps using your Facebook credentials. For many people, this is a tremendous convenience. It means only having to remember one password, and it also provides people with an extra level of security; we always tend to trust known entities more than the unknown, even if it's Facebook.
But when you do this, you are granting Facebook permission to track your activity on that app and add it to the database that it keeps about you. So, if you use this service a lot, then it's quite possible Facebook knows way more about you than you ever thought it did.
Instagram and WhatsApp Activity
Facebook didn't buy these two other large social networks just for fun. They did so because they knew it would give them access to more of your information.
However, there are some places where this practice is not allowed. For example, at the moment, Facebook cannot do this in Germany and other parts of Europe, although it's currently fighting this regulation so as to get access to more of your personal information.
Likes and Reactions
Facebook also records every time you react to something. They obviously do this on their website, but they also use social plugins so that they can track your reactions elsewhere on the web.
Haven't you ever wondered what happens when you click "like" at the end of an article on CNN? That action gets recorded by Facebook, and they use this to enhance the data they already have collected on you.
Posts and Photos
Friends and Friend Groups
Facebook keeps track of who you are friends with on Facebook and how you interact with them so that they can place you into groups. They then sell access to these groups to their advertisers, which we don't need to tell you is big business.
Find Out What Facebook Knows About You
As we've mentioned, exactly what Facebook knows about you is going to depend on your permission settings. However, there is a relatively easy way to find out the data that has been collected about you. Just follow these steps:
Log into your Facebook account
Click on the downward facing arrow at the top right of the screen and choose "Settings" near the bottom of the list
Once in your setting's page, look to the top left. You'll see an option that says "Your Facebook Information."
Click the link and download your information.
To help you, here's a screenshot:
It takes some time for the file to download, but once it does, you will be able to see exactly what Facebook knows about you. Everything is laid out for you in an easy to understand manner. If you find Facebook has some information you don't want it to, then you can change your settings so that it no longer has access to that data.
You can also access this information directly from the web by clicking the same link. You don't need to download it to see it.
How Can You Protect Your Privacy?
If learning more about Facebook's data collection process spooks you, know there are ways for you to better protect your privacy.
However, you should remember that data collection comes part and parcel with most of the services offered to us in this digital age, so there might not be any way to truly keep you information private, lest you delete your account and stop using the service.
As a result, the best thing you can do is to check your Facebook settings to make sure you're comfortable with them. You can't stop Facebook from recording your posts, but you can control who else sees them.
Another thing to do is to go into your phone settings and change location and other permissions so that Facebook and its other apps cease to collect this information. Remember, the default is often to take without asking, unless they are required by law to get your consent. So if you've never done anything, chances are your information is being collected.
The issue of how much Facebook knows about us is a complicated one. People feel as though their personal privacy has been threatened, whereas the company feels it has the right to collect data on users since they willingly use the service and in doing so agree to the company's privacy and data policies.
However, Facebook has become such an important part of our daily lives that it's often collecting information about us when we don't even know it, which raises a whole other set of concerns, such as how much this service should be regulated. But this is a topic for another time.
So, in conclusion, Facebook knows a lot about you, but that's only because you let it.