There’s yet more hype this week around Facebook and privacy, coming out of the release of a new feature ‘Off-Facebook Activity’, which is now available in some regions, Ireland being one of them. This new feature allows you to view (and clear) activity from non-Facebook entities. So, this is basically information about third-party websites or applications that share your visit history with Facebook.
For example, you visit the Harvey Norman website and buy a laptop. Harvey Norman shares this information with Facebook, and the next time you visit Facebook you see an advertisement for a laptop bag. This is one of the main ways that Facebook will use to target advertising. Now by going to Settings -> Your Facebook Information -> Off-Facebook Activity you can see each site that has shared information with Facebook in this way. Most normal users aren’t even aware that this is happening, and that sites they visit completely independently of Facebook will drive the ads they see on the platform.
When I checked this out of my own profile, I was not surprised to see that 152 apps and websites had shared information about my browsing habits with Facebook. The most recent activity was from Microsoft, where I had recently been looking to buy a new Surface Pro on Microsoft.com:
This is a step in the right direction in terms of transparency of this behavior, and I like the fact that I can now remove this data if I chose to also. But what else does Facebook know about me?
For a while now, Facebook has provided the ability to request a download of all of the information that it stores about you as a user of the platform. All you need to do is request it, and about an hour or so later you’ll receive a link to download a compressed (ZIP) file that contains a treasure trove of your personal information.
To generate your download:
- Go to Settings
- Go to Your Facebook Information
- Go to Download Your Information
- Under Request Copy, select Create File
I decided to give this a try to see exactly what information Facebook has collected from my 12 years of being an active user. The file itself can be large, mine was around 500MB. But what exactly does Facebook store about me? It intrigued me to think that all this data is sitting in some Facebook data center, so I wanted to know exactly what was there. Let’s delve into the download and see exactly the type of information that Facebook has stored on me long term.
The structure of the downloaded file looks something like the below, containing a bunch of folders each containing information relating to specific areas:
I spent a while digging through the information. There are quite a few areas that concerned me. Firstly, the ‘ads’ folder. This contained three files:
- ads_interests – a large list of what Facebook perceives my ad interests to be.
- advertisers_who_uploaded_a_contact_list_with_your_information – a list of advertisers who uploaded a list to Facebook with my email address.
- advertisers_you’ve_interacted_with – a list of every ad I’ve ever clicked on within Facebook.
The information stored here is very valuable to Facebook in terms of its advertising business – for example, let’s say I clicked on a craft beer ad (which I often do), and a new craft beer business wants to target relevant users in my region, then I would be highly likely to be in that list of targeted users based on the information that Facebook has on me. This rudimentary approach to targeted advertising contributed to Facebook surpassing $16 billion in advertising revenue as of the end of 2018.
What else do we have in the download? Digging further, I discovered that the following information was present:
- Every event from Facebook that I have ever been invited to, attended or setup.
- My friends list along with all the friend requests I have ever made or rejected.
- A list of all the groups I’ve ever joined.
- Every page and comment I have ever liked on Facebook.
- Every messenger thread I have ever been involved in, with all the private conversation content.
- Everything I’ve ever posted to my Facebook profile.
- Within the ‘about_you’ folder, I found a file called ‘your_address_books’ which contained all the contacts and phone numbers from my iPhone – this was alarming as I never remember allowing any application or Facebook access to this data.
- All photos and videos including all my photo album content came in the download (this explains the large size).
My ‘location’ folder was empty, as I had disabled location tracking on Facebook long ago, but if you didn’t this folder would contain a list of the locations (including GPS coordinates) where you have ever logged on to Facebook.
What’s the bottom line here? Facebook stores a crap load of data about you and uses it to drive its advertising business. Like it or not, that’s the truth. If someone had access to the ZIP file that I downloaded, they could likely build a complete profile on me, see all my previous private conversations with friends, access friends phone numbers, see ads that I clicked on, and also determine sites that I have visited separately from Facebook.
There are a few things you can do to ensure that you lock down your advertising settings, which I recommend that you do:
- Clear your Off-Facebook Activity regularly.
- Turn off Location History.
- In Ad Settings, set ‘Ads based on data from partners’ to ‘Not Allowed’.
- In Ad Settings, set ‘Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere’ to ‘Not Allowed’.
- In Ad Settings, set ‘Ads that include your social actions’ to ‘No One’.
These can help, but ultimately Facebook is constantly updating a profile on you based on your browsing activity. We all take Facebook usage at face value, but we forget that at the end of the day, Facebook is a business and is using all of our personal data to drive one of its main revenue sources – advertising.
I am reminded of my favorite comedian Bill Hicks’ thoughts on advertising.