Facebook has seen its stock fall by billions in the past few days due to news breaking out about a company misusing data taken from over 50 million Facebook profiles. A London-based data mining and analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was responsible for acquiring the data which was then used by a company working for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The data Cambridge Analytica (CA) was used to then show people with political ads based on their preferences and likings. If we take a step back from what CA did and just think- how does Facebook know what people’s preferences are in the first place? Many experts say that Facebook would probably know more about you than your own mother.
It’s true, Facebook knows a lot about you. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that one minute you were searching for something on the internet and the next minute you see an Ad popup for the same thing on Facebook? It’s not a coincidence, Facebook has eyes everywhere. To see what Facebook knows about you, go to Facebook and then go to “Your Ad preferences“.
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This list may seem unharmful as Facebook could have just gotten this information based on the pages you’ve liked. However, the real deal comes when you start to look deeper. For example, I recently had trouble with a lot of malware on my computer so I was visiting multiple sites looking for a way to fix my problem without uninstalling Windows. Now check this out:
How does Facebook know I had problems dealing with Malware a few days back? It actually knows a lot more. In fact, they have pages worth of information on you that they sell to advertisers through which they give you ads specific to your preferences. Although not all of the information gathered by Facebook is true, for example, in the above picture, it says PHP. I have never used or searched about PHP in my life, I may have liked a Facebook page accidentally but that’s it. However, Facebook does tend to store a lot more information on you including your personal information, a lot more than one would want them to.
You would probably find this obvious, but they can also track your location too. If you install the Facebook app, it’s written in one of their permission clauses which people quickly click “allow” on to proceed with installing the app.
How does Facebook do this?
There are multiple ways to do this. First, let’s start with the Facebook app. There are many apps you download on your phone that integrate with your Facebook account. By downloading your apps and connecting to Facebook with them, you’re giving them permission to access your information, yes YOU. So whenever you download an app or go to a website that says “Login with Facebook”, you’re allowing them to access all your information.
Moreover, there are some Facebook settings that will allow apps that your friends have installed to track what you’re doing, even though you do not have the app installed yourself. Now, Although these companies do not intend any harm with your information, it’s just so they can provide you relevant ads which in turn would make them money as well. That’s the tradeoff one has to make for a free app.
However, in this age where hackers are running wild, such information can be easily stolen. Large companies are the favorite targets of hackers these days and your information could be manipulated if breached. Moreover, it’s just a breach of personal privacy thinking that all these major companies know so much about you.
Another way Facebook can track you is through 3rd party cookies. You don’t even need to be logged in for this. What happens is that if you visit some website where you see a Facebook plugin, then it means that it’s there to monitor your actions. The way websites on the internet are made, they can’t remember who you are, once you click away from a website, it forgets who you are. This is only for performance purposes. However, that’s where cookies come into play.
So now you visit site B which also has an Fb plugin. The web request is sent to Facebook alongside your cookie. Facebook will recognize through the cookie that it’s the same user that visited site A, and this way, it slowly builds a large database about you. This information collected on you is then used to give you ads related to your browsing history.
How to stop Facebook from tracking you
The first and foremost thing you can do is to stop using Facebook to log in to different websites. Try making an account there if you have to or log in as a guest, otherwise, you’re agreeing to give that website all your information. After that, remove the apps connected to Facebook you don’t use. Go to your app settings and select Permissions, modify what the app is allowed to see and what it’s not allowed to see.
You can also go to the App settings page and edit the settings under “Apps other use” to stop Facebook tracking you through the apps your friends use. Other than that, deleting your cookies etc. frequently can help but it’s not a feasible solution as you will generate new ones upon the next request.
What you can do instead is something called Script Blocking. Many websites use scripts to alert trackers about your presence on a page. uBlock Origin is a great app for this purpose. It’s a great web extension to have that blocks all the sites that would otherwise track you. You can also set it to allow some sites to track you for better user experience. Other good apps include NoScript and Privacy Badger.
You should also disable third-party cookies from your browser settings. That will stop Facebook from tracking you across different websites and thus solving a majority of the problem. There are web extensions such as Cookie AutoDelete that perform this task too.
Whether you want to let sites track you is another story. If you feel like they’re being too invasive on your privacy then you should try some of the methods above. However, if you think that the ads you receive are more often than not helpful to you, then you can stick to letting Facebook store your information. But, always remember that not all of your information is safe and always think twice before giving different third-party apps permission through your Facebook otherwise it may fall into the wrong hands.