At this point, most of us know that Facebook collects an enormous amount of personal information about its users. Facebook relentlessly absorbs data – unfathomable amounts of data – that it saves and then uses for various purposes, like targeted advertising. But what kind of personal information does Facebook collect? How much personal information does Facebook have about you? What, in short, does Facebook know about you?
These are difficult questions, and Facebook isn’t exactly forthcoming about the exact personal information it has amassed. (It would probably scare people.) Thankfully, the good folks at Consumer Reports recently released their annual State of the Net report, which focused on the benefits, drawbacks, and possible threats associated with Facebook’s unique role as the guardian of mountains (digitally speaking) of personal information. The report is based on extensive research, including dozens of interviews and a survey of over 2,000 households that use the Internet. (Many of these households, of course, include active Facebook users, as an “Internet user” and a “Facebook user” are becoming one and the same.) We read through the report to pick out some of the highlights and surprises. The benefits of Facebook strike us as being fairly obvious, so we’ll focus on the areas of concern, particularly those that the average user wouldn’t expect.
First, what type of information does Facebook collect? A lot. Consider the widely reported case of Max Schrems. An Austrian law student, he was able to gain access to over a thousand pages of information about his Facebook activity by filing a request through Facebook’s European headquarters in Ireland. (Ireland has strict privacy laws, including a “right to access” law that entitles Europeans to know what a company knows about them.) Within this pile of information was plenty of data one might expect to find, but also tons of stuff Schrems had deleted, or what he tought he had deleted.
He found, for example, a record of deleted messages and wall posts, as well as the names of people he had removed from his friends list. Schrems’ file had almost 60 different categories of information and covered such minutiae as his last known location, down to the latitude and longitude, and every “poke” he had ever received. Schrems’ records also revealed that Facebook keeps a record of the exact times and dates when you log into the site, as well as a list of any user who has logged onto Facebook using your computer. Oh yeah, and Facebook also stores 60 billion photos posted by its users, and a quarter of a billion more are added every day. This is, needless to say, a vast collection, and Facebook’s facial-recognition software makes the information revealed in these pictures all the richer. Just because you aren’t tagged in a photo doesn’t mean that you can’t be associated with it.
And there’s more. One of the most troubling things that the Consumer Reports study called attention to is the fact that Facebook gathers so much information that is unrelated to your activity on the site. Any time you visit a site with a Facebook “Like” button, the site receives a report, and this is true even if you don’t click the button or you aren’t logged into Facebook. (Facebook is currently being sued in Federal court for this, as a matter of fact.) Similarly, and perhaps even more disturbingly, Facebook collects data from the people who visit these sites even if they aren’t Facebook users. In theory, Facebook doesn’t know who the nonusers are visiting sites with “Like” buttons, but since the site collects IP Addresses, a nonuser’s identity could be inferred in many cases (because so much data is linked to your IP Address).
To an extent, you can find out some of this information yourself. Facebook offers ways for users to access records of their past Facebook activity. Facebook has a “Download Your Information” tool, but even this doesn’t fully reveal all the information Facebook knows about you, a fact made clear by the work of people like Schrems. Limitations notwithstanding, a tool like this is helpful, but it is also troubling that there exists any sort of database with so much personal information about you. What if this information is accessed by nefarious actors because of, say, a security breach? (Frankly, if this were to occur, the full consequences would be impossible to predict. The amount of data that Facebook collects is utterly unprecedented.) And it’s not like Facebook stores insignificant information. Some user’s personal data are highly sensitive, and an extraordinary amount can be learned about a person just by reviewing the information that Facebook has collected.
If your personal information were to somehow fall into criminal hands, this could of course be disastrous, but it is also deeply disconcerting to consider how your personal information could be used by legitimate (by which we only mean “non-criminal”) people or institutions. For example, any information you reveal about your health could potentially be used against you by an insurance company. The IRS already uses Facebook posts to help resolve taxpayer cases. If, for example, you post information about the sources of your earnings, the IRS could follow up with these sources to confirm the amount of money you made, and then check this against what you reported. It’s easy to imagine many other people using your Facebook information to make decisions about you, from potential employers to future romantic partners.
Of course, many potential problems faced by Facebook users are brought on by themselves. For example, the Consumer Reports projected (based on their survey) that about 4.8 million Facebook users (out of the 150 million U.S. users of the site) indicated where they would be on a certain day. As we have pointed out before, this also reveals to people where you will not be (e.g., at home), potentially inviting robberies. Setting up careful privacy settings can also help mitigate some of the potential dangers associated with Facebook use (although these settings are notoriously hard to navigate), but Consumer Reports’ projects that almost 13 million users have never set, or aren’t even aware of, Facebook’s privacy settings.
The bottom line, as revealed by the State of the Web report and our own continuing preoccupation with privacy and social networks, is that Facebook must be used very cautiously. No one wants to sound like an alarmist, but the sheer amount of data that Facebook stores about every one of its users invites caution at the very least. We simply don’t know what the implications are of a private company knowing so many exact details about our lives, so the only reasonable course forward is to be aware of the issue and take steps to use the site responsibly.
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