How well does Facebook know you? Collecting personal information in the age of technology

Photo/William Iven

Photo/William Iven

For many of us, social media has become an inseparable part of daily life. In the past few years social media has reached a vast circulation and completely changed how we communicate. Facebook is by far one of the biggest social media sites out there and there seems to be no sign of a decrease in new users.

It’s recent financial settlement stated that 1,86 billion people use Facebook each month, there of 1,23 billion daily. This equals one in six people on earth using Facebook every single day, not counting children or people that do not have access to the internet.

The appearance of social media has made it easy for people all over the world to communicate for free, wherever and whenever they want. But Facebook is hardly run with charity in mind. It is an international company that in a short amount of time has gone from being run from a dorm room to being one of the most valuable companies in the world.

Information in, money out

Facebook’s overall income for the last three months of 2016 was 8,81 billion U.S. dollars, or over 1.000 billion Icelandic króna. As a comparison, the estimated income for the Icelandic state for the whole year is 772 billion, or about one fourth of Facebook’s income per year. Most of this money comes from advertisements that Facebook sells to various companies. The detailed information that Facebook has for each individual user gives the advertiser a certain advantage over more traditional media, such as television and newspapers. This information gives them the opportunity to choose carefully who sees their advertisement based on age, residence, education etc. Instead of advertising to everyone, companies can focus on the people that are more likely to be interested in buying the product.

Entails new risks and threats

Facebook has therefore an immense collection of information about its users. A lot of this information we ourselves have provided them with, without giving it much thought, but on top of that is the collecting of information most users don’t know about. For example, Facebook follows every website we, the users, visit, including those not opened through Facebook. This applies to all websites that have a “like” or “share” button. These websites send their information to Facebook, even if those buttons have not been clicked on.

It is worth mentioning that this collecting of information is not limited to Facebook only but can be applied to most social media, apps and other websites that publish advertisement. The director of The Icelandic Data Protection Authority, Persónuvernd, expressed her concern for this collecting of personal information in their newest annual report, as well as pressing for an awakening among people about the new risks that arise along with it.

Interconnection cause for increasing worries

Facebook has in the last years been harshly criticized for not letting their users know about the fact that the company buys information from so called data brokers. This is done in 7 countries and Iceland is not one of them. Data brokers collect diverse information about people, including height, weight, health, what people shop and where, financial status, and even, whether they are likely to inherit a family member in the near future. The New York Times has for instance suggested that these companies have more personal information about people in the U.S. than Facebook, Google or the FBI.

Buying this information allows Facebook to monitor advertisement activity. They can for example see if an individual that sees a cookie advertisement is more likely to buy the cookie than those who don’t see it. As a result the company has an enormous amount of detailed information about its users. An Austrian law student once requested that the company send him all data they had of him and received a 1.200 page PDF document that included each of his “pokes”, the IP-addresses of every device where he opened Facebook, friends, posts and messages that he had deleted a long time ago as well as his estimated location based from other apps, IP-addresses and where photos were last taken.

An awakening could be occurring

Personal information is valuable to companies because it allows them to build a detailed image of individuals and their personal lives. Once this information gets out it is easy to lose control over it and difficult to get it deleted. Facebook’s user agreements, as well as other similar site’s user agreements which most of us don’t even bother to read before clicking “agree”, allow information about users to be shared with others (but not sold) and state that this information follows the company in case it is ever sold. This makes it almost impossible to know where this information will end up with time. There are examples of medical data from apps being sold to insurance companies, resulting in restrictions of insurance conditions.

81% participants in a research by Eurobarometer admitted to having limited to no control over the information they provided online. Therefore many hope that newly reconsidered laws of the European Union will set companies stricter rules about the collecting of personal information. It is important that people are aware of the value of such information and how companies like Facebook profit from it. No matter what our position towards this issue is, most of us agree on being able to control what information gets out there, including what is collected and how it is used.

Some of the 98 items that are used to create advertisement on Facebook

Family size - Home size - Distance from family - People in long distance relationships - Soccer moms - Where people shop - Age of vehicle - Probable house-/vehicle buyers - Giving to charity - Location - Engagement - Expecting a baby - Job - Hobby - Allergies

You can go to to see all the things you have liked and what the company thinks it knows based on these likes. There you will discover some uncomfortably accurate information as well as not so accurate. Keep in mind that this is still only a fraction of the information the company collects.

Some of the information Facebook collects

Interests - What people you communicate with and how much - Personal messages - Political opinions - Geographical location - Shops that you’ve entered - Family - Phone numbers (sometimes acquired through other people’s phone books) - Every site you’ve visited with a like/share button - What you look at on Facebook and how much - What you ‘like’ and what you don’t - Information about all devices in which you have opened Facebook and who else has used those devices.

Some ways to limit the information collected online

Set up Disconnect Free in Chrome/Safari/Firefox - It includes restricting Facebook from collecting information from other websites than their own.

Delete cookies regularly - Cookies are used to connect your visits to various websites so advertisers can know that it’s the same person.

Turn off location on your phone when not using GPS and monitor what permissions apps are asking for i.e. information about location or access to your phone book.

Try using other search engines such as Startpage or DuckDuckGo that do not collect personal information like Google increasingly does.

Journalist: Eiður Þór Árnason
Translation: Lísa Björg Attensperger

Article first published in 3rd issue, vol. 92 of Stúdentablaðið