Facebook is a huge social network that has over 2.6 billion users. Of all those people, 1.73 billion can be found using the platform every day. In short, it is one of the largest social networks ever. Facebook’s influence spreads across the entire globe – and because of that Facebook has been able to collect information about a lot of internet users.
Privacy experts have long been concerned about how Facebook collects and uses information. On the one hand, they collect data that users willingly and knowingly provide to the company. On the other hand, however, there is plenty of data collected without users being aware of it. In fact, Facebook might just know more about you than your closest friends do.
Many privacy watchdogs have called out Facebook over the years. The social media company has even gotten several large fines for invading the privacy their users. The most famous example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, dearly. Regardless, countless people still provide Facebook with valuable information, which is then used for marketing purposes.
You might be wondering what kind of information this is. What does Facebook know about us? And how can we protect our data and privacy?
How Much Does Facebook Know About You?
Facebook is a social media platform. It was set up to allow users to share information about their lives with friends in their network. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that Facebook knows everything you’ve chosen to share on your page. But the data collection doesn’t stop there. Facebook knows more about you than you might think.
Facebook closely tracks and collects information about your:
- Facebook profile
- Actions on the platform
- Browsing data
- Device data
- Political preferences
- And much more
In fact, Facebook knows pretty much everything you’ve ever done on their social network. Moreover, it even knows what you’ve been doing online beyond their website. Below, we’ll discuss how Facebook gets this information and what they do with it.
Facebook Knows What You’re Doing
First of all, Facebook knows exactly what you’re doing on their platform. You log in to your own unique account and create your own content. It’s very likely that you used your own name, email address, date of birth, and possibly your phone number to create this account. Facebook can see all of this information. On top of that, it can see your publicly shared messages, status updates, comments, and likes. If your child uses Facebook Messenger Kids, Facebook will gather information about that, too.
Just by using their service, you voluntarily offer Facebook even more information. The company keeps track of when and to whom you send chat messages. Facebook also knows who you’ve befriended and who you receive friendship requests from, as well as to whom you send them yourself. Facebook even tracks the metadata attached to any files you upload. This could allow them to find out your location, for example. We will discuss this in more detail later on.
Facebook’s privacy statement proves that the company isn’t very privacy conscious when it comes to the treatment of all this information: “Our systems automatically process content and communications from you and others in order to analyze the context and find out what they are about.” In other words, nothing you do on Facebook is private.
Collecting technical details
The reach of Facebook goes even further. In addition to the metadata Facebook collects, the company keeps track of even more technical data. This way, Facebook knows all kinds of details about the devices you use. These include the brand, your operating system, the apps you’ve installed on your phone, device IDs, Wi-Fi access point signals, accessible Bluetooth and cell tower signals, and stored cookies.
Some of your phone’s default settings are also shared with Facebook, including information about your language, time zone, IP address, internet speed, and other devices connected to the same network. This way, the company probably knows who your roommates are just because you all use Facebook as well as the same network.
Facebook takes another step deeper into data collection. Even your device’s actions are traced. Every mouse movement is registered, partly in order to distinguish real users from bots, but also to see how much time you spend looking at a certain post or advertisement. All actions you perform using Facebook’s products are stored and, where possible, used to make a profit.
Your finances and transactions
There are times when Facebook users share their financial data with the social media platform. This happens when they use Facebook for transactions, such as a donation or a game purchase. An awful lot of information about these transactions is stored: your payment details (including your account number and other card details), account and verification details, as well as billing and shipping information, including your contact details.
Besides the fact that this is all very sensitive information, Facebook can also draw many conclusions about you with this data. Facebook might categorize you based on the number of credit cards you own, for example. The company also knows how to combine this financial information with other data. They could use it to conclude that you are engaged and therefore more likely to click on wedding advertisements.
Friends and partners of Facebook
The information Facebook receives about you doesn’t just come from your actions and posts. Others might also reveal crucial information about you in their own content and posts. This applies when a friend posts pictures of you online (especially when facial recognition is used), but also when they send you instant messages or upload their contact information to Facebook. All of these contacts will then be available to and saved by Facebook.
Partners of Facebook can also share information about you with the network – and this is done on a large scale. Any company that collaborates with Facebook can provide data to the social media platform to be added to their database. This way Facebook knows exactly how you interact with other websites and gets more insight into your online behavior and activities. With all this information, Facebook’s profile of you will quickly become increasingly attractive to advertisers. And the more detailed your profile, the more profitable you’ll be for the company.
You may be wondering whether that network of Facebook partners is really that big. The answer is yes. Every website and service where you can log in with Facebook (such as Spotify), every page with a Facebook pixel (like most news websites) – all of these platforms pass on information to Facebook. Due to this dense network, there is very little that Facebook doesn’t know about us.
Facebook Knows Where You Are
Nearly 80 percent of Facebook users visit the platform exclusively from their smartphone. If we add the users who, besides using Facebook on their phones, also use it on their desktop, we’re even closer to 100%. This makes sense: many people will likely check Facebook on the go.
Most people don’t realize that installing the Facebook app on their phone also means that Facebook could constantly know where you are. Facebook uses your phone’s location to keep track of where you are at any given time.
How does Facebook know your location?
Facebook gets all kinds of detailed location information from a variety of sources. First of all, your GPS can accurately indicate where you are. Even when your GPS is turned off, however, Facebook can still find out where you are. Using Wi-Fi points, Bluetooth signals and masts in your area, the company can get an accurate idea of your location. Of course, your IP address might also play a role in this, although usually this isn’t even necessary.
Your location history is used for marketing
You can view your location history online when you’ve got the Facebook app for smartphone. As long as you’re logged in, your account will show exactly where you’ve been. These detailed logs are incredibly useful for Facebook.
After using the app for just a short amount of time, the company will know where you live, work, play sports, and party. Your location might reveal where your children go to school, allowing Facebook to then estimate their ages. Facebook will know your favorite stores, as well as how much time you spend in them on average. With all of this data, the company will even be able to determine the day when you’re most likely to go shopping.
Facebook can use location data to set up ads more effectively. If your location suggests you’re looking for a car dealer, Facebook will pass on this information. Advertisers will then receive a warning saying that now might be a good time to put some car ads on your timeline. The same goes for other situations: a couple of visits to a gynecologist can already result in an increase of the amount of advertisements for baby products on your timeline.
The possibilities – and risks – are endless. Meanwhile, many Facebook users deliberately remove their location from their profile without knowing their every step is being traced anyway. You may be able to easily hide your personal information from other users, but not from Facebook and its partners.
Facebook and the GDPR
This sensitive information needs to be treated with respect. However, this doesn’t apply to all Facebook users. If you don’t live in the European Union, the GDPR doesn’t apply to you. This is the case for many citizens of the United States, for example. If you live in the USA and your local privacy laws aren’t strict enough, Facebook may use your sensitive data for marketing purposes.
In such a case, knowing your political preferences helps Facebook determine which advertisements would be more effective. Even ads for the same product may be tailored to appeal to multiple groups. Political ads are tailored to achieve specific goals. If you aren’t protected by your local privacy laws, Facebook is free to use any information it gathers about you, against you.
Even within the European Union you aren’t completely protected against data collection. There are already numerous suspicions that Facebook doesn’t adhere to the GDPR. Moreover, several privacy organizations have indicated that Facebook has violated the privacy of its users. Therefore, we can’t guarantee that Facebook won’t use your data against you, even if you are protected by the GDPR.
Facebook Knows Everything About Your Life
There are an awful lot of places on the internet where Facebook has some degree of power. Therefore, it’s best to assume that Facebook knows about almost everything you do online. Facebook follows every post you like. It analyzes every video you watch and knows how long you spent watching it. Every friend request and every clicked ad feeds Facebook’s huge data collection.
By combining all the channels Facebook has at its disposal, the company can create a detailed profile of most of us. Subsequently, Facebook has hundreds of categories for advertisers to choose from, allowing them to refine their targeting information.
Big Data collection
Facebook also collects information about larger groups of users, which is called “big data”. This is less detailed data, which doesn’t necessarily refer to one person, but says something about general trends among larger groups of users, in this case the many millions of people on Facebook. The company can sell this information to companies that use it for analysis and research purposes. Possible buyers are private businesses and service providers as well as academics and groups conducting scientific research. In addition, Facebook sometimes provides information to law enforcement agencies, for example in response to a legal request.
How to View Your Facebook Data
According to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), you have the right to access your personal data. Facebook must comply with these European privacy laws as well. Therefore, any user is able to download a file with a copy of all the data Facebook has collected about them since their registration.
Would you like to see the data Facebook has collected about you? You can easily see an overview by following these steps:
- Go to your settings by clicking the arrow at the top right of the screen, then click “Settings and privacy” and choose “Settings”.
- In the menu on the left click “Your Facebook Information”. You should now be able to see the screen below.
- Click on “Access Your Information”. You’ll see a list of all kinds of content that Facebook has stored about you. You can view this info per category.
- Click on a category you wish to view. Most categories have subsections you can choose from. Click one of these sections, and you will be redirected to an overview with that specific information.
If you’ve had your Facebook account for a while and want to see all the information you’ve collected, you’ll be stuck on these pages for a long time. Everything from your deleted friends to your interests and your complete chat history can be accessed.
How to Download a Copy of Your Facebook Information
Instead of just viewing your data, you can also download a copy of your Facebook information. This can be useful if you want to have all your data available offline, for example. It’s also the perfect solution if you wish to delete your Facebook account, but want to hold on to particular data shared on the platform, such as pictures.
To download a copy of your data, follow these steps:
- Go to your settings and click “Your Facebook Information”.
- Click on “Download Your Information”. You’ll see the following screen.
- Choose the date range of the data you wish to receive: do you want to download all data from the moment you became a member, or only from the last couple of months?
- Choose your desired file format. If you only want to view your data, choose HTML. Would you like to export your data to another service? Then choose JSON.
- Choose the desired media quality (high, medium or low). If you’re planning on leaving Facebook and want to take your media files with you, choose “High”.
- Click on “Create File”. The file will be processed. How long this takes, depends on the amount of information collected and the quality you have chosen. You’ll get a notification once you can download your data file.
- Follow the notification and re-enter your password.
- Download the (zip) file. Keep in mind that this file can be quite large.
You now have a file with all your desired Facebook data, which you can view whenever you want. Moreover, all this information, including messages, media and interactions, will remain in your possession, even if you delete your Facebook profile.
Protecting Your Information and Privacy on Facebook
Now that you’ve viewed or downloaded your data, you’re probably wondering how to proceed. How can you protect your data and privacy on Facebook? It might not seem like it, but it is possible. Here are some tips.
Secure your Facebook account
Before you start worrying about what Facebook can do with your data, it’s important to make sure your Facebook account can’t be used by strangers. Cybercriminals would be all too happy to gain access to all your data – and hacking your account will be a breeze if you don’t secure your account properly.
There are some simple things you can do to secure your account:
- Use a strong, unique password. Don’t share this password with anyone, so you can be sure that you’re the only one who has access to your account.
- Enable two-factor authentication. This means adding an extra step to your login process in unusual circumstances, for example when you’re using a different browser or device than usual. Via a text message on your phone or a login code on an authentication app (such as Google Authenticator) you’ll then be able to indicate that you really are the one trying to log in. To enable this option, go to “Security and Login” in your settings and click “Use two-factor authentication”. Link your phone number or authentication app to Facebook to activate two-factor authentication.
- Check the devices on which your account is logged in. Facebook knows which devices you normally use to log in. You can see a list of all these devices and login attempts by going to your settings and clicking “Security and Login”. Critically look at the section called “Where You’re Logged In” and log out on all devices you don’t (or no longer) use.
- Turn on your notifications. If someone logs into your account from an unusual device or location, Facebook can notify you via Notifications, Messenger, email or text message. You can enable this feature under “Setting Up Extra Security” by checking the appropriate options under “Get alerts about unrecognized logins”.
Manage your privacy settings
Once you’re sure your Facebook account is safe from external attacks, you turn to your account’s content. Facebook offers a lot of privacy settings you can easily adjust yourself. All of these settings can be found when you are logged into the platform and visit the “Settings” section.
It’s really worth going through these options and making sure everything is to your liking. This way you can be sure that Facebook – and other Facebook users – can only see the information you give them voluntarily. Here are some settings you might want to pay extra attention to:
- Your Activity: determine who can see your Facebook messages, shared posts, and other activity (just you, your friends, or everyone).
- How People Find and Contact You: decide whether search engines show your Facebook profile in their results and who can find you based on your email address or phone number.
- Face Recognition: decide whether Facebook is allowed use face recognition to recognize you in photos and videos.
- Location: enable or disable your location history. This only works on mobile devices.
- Apps and Websites: Check the different apps and websites that have access to your Facebook data (e.g. Spotify) and log out of these platforms if necessary.
- Ads: determine which information advertisers are allowed to use to display personalized ads.
In addition to these points, Facebook has many other settings that can help you manage your privacy. We recommend that you think carefully about the consequences of sharing the information included in each option. It’s often best to share as little about yourself as possible, so it can’t be used against you.
Would you like more information and instructions on how to protect your privacy on Facebook? You can read our ultimate Facebook privacy guide here.
Emergency solution: delete your Facebook account
Of course, there is a more drastic measure to protect your privacy on Facebook: you can always delete your account. Without a Facebook account, it becomes a lot harder for the company to follow you. Do you wish to delete your Facebook account? Then follow these steps:
- Go to your settings and click the option “Your Facebook Information”.
- If you wish to save your Facebook data, don’t forget to click “Download Your Information” and follow the steps above to download an overview of all your actions, media (including photos and videos) and posts on Facebook.
- Choose “Deactivation and Deletion”.
- Choose “Permanently Delete Account” and then “Continue to Account Deletion”.
In addition to permanently deleting your account, you can also choose to deactivate your account. This means you’ll disappear from the website for other Facebook users, but you can reactivate your account in the future. Keep in mind that all your data will still be stored and remain in the hands of Facebook.
Deleting your Facebook account also means you’ll no longer be able to login to other platforms with this account. Is your Spotify or Tinder account linked to Facebook? Keep this in mind! Your accounts on these platforms might become unavailable without your Facebook account.
If you delete your Facebook account, this means the “content you have posted, such as your photos and status updates” will be deleted. This can take up to 30 days. After a month you won’t be able to recover your account. It can take up to about 90 days for all of your data to be deleted, although in that time it will no longer be visible to other Facebook users. Even after this period, Facebook indicates that there may still be copies of your data in their backup storage. In other words, deleting your Facebook account doesn’t guarantee that all of your information will be deleted completely from Facebook’s servers.
Alongside Google, Facebook is one of the largest private data collectors in the world. Every tidbit of information you provide to Facebook is stored and used to build a profile on you. These profiles subsequently help Facebook sell personalized ads. Whether it’s data about your interests, your job, your financial information or your location – Facebook uses it all.
If you want to be mindful of your privacy, it’s important to be aware of Facebook’s far-reaching power. Think carefully about the things you want to share with the platform and make sure you always stay safe online. Tired of Facebook knowing so much about you? Then you can always choose to delete your entire account. However, even then there is no guarantee that all your information will be deleted. In short, staying completely anonymous on Facebook is a near impossible task.
It’s not just Facebook that collects your information. LinkedIn does too. Here’s how you can delete your LinkedIn account completely.