Facebook is Not Spying, Stealing, or Selling Data; You Volunteered It.

Has this ever happened to you: you’re scrolling through Facebook looking at pictures from your friends and posts from your favorite pages, then you see an ad for a product you were looking at on Amazon 20 minutes ago? Better yet, what if you only mentioned the product to a friend, but never looked it up online? How do they know? It’s not Big Brother Zuckerberg watching you. It’s science, and you volunteered all the data in the equation.

The concern is that Facebook, along with several other entities, are either invasively collecting information (such as using the microphone on your phone), OR that the information in their collection is being sold to a third party. Let me say this right now: Facebook does not sell your information to any third party, nor do they provide this information to advertisers who use their platform (even when exploiting the system, such as Cambridge Analytica famously did in the 2016 Presidential Election) . In addition, there is no evidence to support illegal eavesdropping, either.

This begs the question: how did Facebook get all this information about me, and what are they doing with it? To be fair, Facebook is not alone here, many other major websites such as Google and Amazon also utilize all the same practices and methods, but the question remains.

The answer is simple: you gave it to them. Allow me to explain.

Your Activity

Facebook collects data that you have provided to them through three major sources. The first and most obvious is your daily activity. All the information you provide is used to build a demographic for advertising: age, race, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, employment history, pages you like, places you check in, and even that same information for the people you interact with the most. But it doesn’t stop there. Every photo taken and uploaded from a mobile device also includes the location where it was taken (a native function of all mobile phones). The locations you frequent the most play a factor here as well. Remember, this is all information that we voluntarily provide every day, and it’s enough to build an accurate profile on its own, but it goes much deeper than that.

The Pixel

Facebook Pixel is a code that advertisers can choose to place on their website. It helps track and optimize the performance of ads that they are running on the platform and, you guessed it, build demographics for future ads. The most common example of Pixel use is retargeting, like the example mentioned above where you’re looking at iPods on Amazon and then suddenly see an add for an iPod on Facebook 20 minutes later. The Pixel knows you were just on Amazon as well as what you were looking at, and the Amazon marketing department is using this information to deliver their ads.

Third Party Data

This one is a gray area, and all it means is that Facebook may buy data collected by an outside third party. There is no hard evidence that they have or have not, and what it may or may not contain. Consider this as more of a Just In Case policy.

Follow Up

This begs the question: is my information safe? Yes, absolutely. Your information is never provided directly to any advertiser and they can’t target ads to a specific user. Instead, this information is used to create a generalization of a demographic to target, albeit a pretty damn accurate one. So what about the example where you only mentioned something to a friend verbally and then it’s in your feed? Science has shown that when something is brought to our attention we notice it more, even though it was there the entire time. This is the same reason that when someone gets a new car, they suddenly see the same car everywhere they go.

In Summary

Honestly, Facebook is not the bad guy here. They, like Google, Bing, and many others, are just a tool that advertisers use to market to the masses, so it’s inaccurate to accuse them of spying, or selling or sharing your information. Your information is safe, and the service is entirely opt-in. This is the price of a free internet: it’s powered by ad dollars, which means that advertising is here to stay. If you’re really concerned, limiting the information you share with the platform will have the biggest impact.