If you have a Facebook account, you’re probably well aware that the social media giant keeps tabs on you while you’re on its platform. However, you might not have realized that it also tracks you when you’re not on Facebook — and has been doing so for years.
Unsurprisingly, Facebook knows more or less everything there is to know about its users. But the question remains, does Facebook sell your data? The good news is that Facebook doesn’t sell user data to third parties. The bad news is that instead, it sells targeted advertising.
Targeted ads make Facebook a lot of money. In 2019, the company generated almost $70 billion from ad revenue alone. The thing is: some argue that selling data and selling targeted advertising is the same thing.
Read on to learn about how Facebook collects user information and what it does with it. Still not sure how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data to help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidential election? We go over that, too. We also show you how to request your data from Facebook so that you know precisely how it stalks you.
How Does Facebook Collect Information?
Facebook uses many different methods to gather information about its users. These methods include, but are not limited to, monitoring your actions on Facebook platforms, tracking you all over the internet via cookies, and following you across your apps via the Facebook Login feature.
The moment you click “Create New [Facebook] Account” is the moment that the social networking site starts collecting information on you. When most people sign up for Facebook, they voluntarily share their name, birth date, and phone number or email address. Many also fill out their profiles, supplying additional information, like their workplace, schools they’ve attended, hometown, current city, and relationship status.
Don’t forget that any data you share publicly on your Facebook profile is accessible to anyone online — including data brokers.
If you’ve made a Facebook profile, you’re probably going to use it (here’s a good article on why it’s so addictive). And anytime you do, Facebook tracks:
- When you log in and from where (including your IP address)
- How long you spend scrolling
- People, accounts, pages, groups, and hashtags you connect with
- Places you check in to
- Pages you follow
- How you use Facebook’s camera
- Metadata of content you share (like the location of a photo)
- Contact information (if uploaded from a device)
- Who you talk to on Messenger and for how long
- Items you buy through Facebook
- Information other people share about you
Facebook doesn’t stop spying on you when you log out of your account. Advertisers, app developers, and publishers can send Facebook information on your activities outside Facebook, including the websites you visit, things you buy, and how you use their services — regardless of whether or not you have a Facebook account.
Yep, Facebook can track you even if you don’t have a Facebook account, as long as the site or app you visit uses Facebook tools like “Like” and “Share” buttons and the Facebook pixel (a type of tracking cookie).
Here’s what Facebook says in its Data Policy, “A game developer could use our API to tell us what games you play, or a business could tell us about a purchase you made in its store. We also receive information about your online and offline actions and purchases from third-party data providers who have the rights to provide us with your information.”
If you use Facebook Portal, a video communication device, Facebook also knows who you call and how long your calls last. It also records your voice commands. However, these commands are apparently not used for ad targeting.
The Next Web has an interesting article on other sneaky ways Facebook collects information on you (spoiler alert: it involves the social network paying teens $20 a month to install a tracking app and a “free” VPN that gathers information about its users).
Does Facebook sell your data?
Facebook claims that it doesn’t sell its users’ personal information. However, that doesn’t mean that your private data is 100% safe. According to Facebook’s Data Policy, the company may share information about you with third-party apps, advertisers, other partners (like vendors and service providers), and any companies that it owns.
Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
When you use third-party apps integrated with Facebook, the third-party apps may receive information about what you post or share. To use Facebook’s own example, “When … you use the Facebook Comment or Share button on a website, the … website may receive a comment or link that you share from their website on Facebook.”
Additionally, third-party apps can access your Facebook profile, which can include your username, age, country, language, list of friends, and any other information you chose to make public. Note that data collected by third-party integrations are subject to their own policies.
To show you more relevant ads, Facebook also shares your information with advertising, measurement, and analytics services. However, Facebook makes it very clear that it doesn’t divulge personally identifiable information, like your name or email, unless you give them permission to do so.
Instead, Facebook may:
- Tell their partners how their ads performed (like how many people saw the ad).
- Provide generic demographic information (i.e., “25-year-old female, in Madrid, who likes software engineering”).
- Allow advertisers to selectively target people (“Friends of Newly Engaged,” “Likely to Engage in Politics (Conservative)” and “Family of Expats” are just some of the targeting categories on Facebook).
Unsurprisingly, some people disagree that ad-targeting is any different from selling personal data. In an article for the New York Times, assistant professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business Michal Kosinski writes, “When the company argues that it is not selling data, but rather selling targeted advertising, it’s luring you into a semantic trap, encouraging you to imagine that the only way of selling data is to send advertisers a file filled with user information. Congress may have fallen for this trap set up by Mr. Zuckerberg, but that doesn’t mean you have to. The fact that your data is not disclosed in an Excel spreadsheet but through a click on a targeted ad is irrelevant. Data still changes hands and goes to the advertiser.”
Facebook also transfers user information to service providers, vendors, and other partners that support its business (think companies that provide analyzing or customer support services). However, these partners are bound by strict confidentiality agreements.
Facebook makes no secret of the fact that it shares any data it has on you within its family of companies, including the text and voice messaging app WhatsApp.
Were Facebook to sell all or some of its services or assets, your personal information could end up in the hands of the new owner.
It’s also worth remembering that in the past, Facebook came under fire for trading user data with other tech companies (like Yahoo, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon, and Microsoft), online retailers, car manufacturers, and media organizations — without user consent.
Information shared included names, contact information, and activities of users’ friends as well as access to private messages.
What Was the Cambridge Analytica Scandal?
The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal was a data leak that exposed the personal information of over 87 million Facebook users in 2018. The data was used by the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica to make “psychographic” profiles about voters for use in political campaigns, including the Trump campaign and the Brexit campaign in Britain.
What happened was this: In 2014, the Soviet-born researcher Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz app called This Is Your Digital Life. Around 300,000 Facebook users were paid to download the app and take the surveys on it. At the time, Facebook made it possible for app developers to collect data not only on people using the app but also on their friends (provided that their privacy settings allowed it).
Kogan apparently told Facebook that he was collecting user data for academic purposes. However, he updated the app’s terms and conditions halfway through the project and passed on the information to Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica then allegedly used the data to explore the “mental vulnerabilities of people, and then map out ways to inject information into different streams or channels of content online so that people started to see things all over the place that may or may not have been true.”
Although the incident was reported on as early as 2015, most people did not learn about it until 2018, when an ex-Cambridge Analytica employee, Christopher Wylie, came forward and shared all he knew. That same year, Mark Zuckerberg testified to the U.S. Congress. In March 2019, it came to light that Facebook knew of Cambridge Analytica’s behavior before the scandal made news headlines worldwide. In July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for violating consumers’ privacy rights.
Can I Request My Data From Facebook?
All active Facebook users can download their Facebook data. To do so, log in to your Facebook account and click on “Settings & Privacy” (if using new Facebook). Then, select “Settings” (start here if using old Facebook) and click on“Your Facebook Information.” Find “Download Your Information” and choose to “View” it.
Your information is divided into various different categories, including:
- Payment History
- Apps and Websites
- Ads and Businesses
- Information Used for Recommendations
You can choose the format in which you want to download the information (HTML or JSON), the quality of media files, and a specific date range.
Although Facebook doesn’t technically sell user data to third parties, that doesn’t mean that your personal information is safe. As demonstrated by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, anyone can get their hands on your sensitive data if they really want to.
That could be disastrous. According to one study from 2015, your Facebook activity could indicate your psychological traits more accurately than your family or friends.
Not quite ready to delete your Facebook account? We don’t blame you. Besides, even if you get rid of your account, it can take Facebook up to 90 days to delete things you’ve posted from their backup systems. Moreover, some information might always be out there. For example, your messaging history will still be visible to the person you wrote to, even if you delete your profile. Some third-party apps may also still be able to access the content you shared in the past. Plus, as mentioned earlier, Facebook can track you even if you’re not a user.
That being said, the situation isn’t completely hopeless. Facebook recently rolled out Off-Facebook Activity (OFA) tools, which show you which websites and third-party apps share data with Facebook. You might be surprised to learn what Facebook knows about you.
In an article for The Washington Post, the technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler talks about how his colleagues that used the OFA tools were shocked to discover that Facebook knew “about a visit to a sperm-measurement service, log-ins to medical insurance and even the website to register for the Equifax breach settlement.” Luckily, the tool lets you disconnect your off-Facebook activity (note that it might take up to 48 hours for that to happen).
But what if your sensitive data is already out there? After all, Facebook logins cost just $5.20 on the dark web. In that case, you might want to search for yourself on data brokers and people search sites. These sites compile accurate profiles on individuals that include things like their name, address, phone number, social media information, and more. We have a thorough guide on how to opt-out of all major data brokers out there. Need a little help? DeleteMe, a subscription-based privacy service, can do it for you for as little as $10.75 a month.