Facebook / WIRED
Facebook tracks (almost) everything you do – both while you’re on Facebook and when you’re browsing the web elsewhere. All of this information helps to feed its advertising business, which helps the company keep on growing (even during the coronavirus pandemic).
First up, everything you do on Facebook is tracked. This isn’t something that’s unique to Facebook – it is standard practice across all the apps and websites you use. Every profile viewed, picture liked and group visited is logged by the company. Facebook knows who you message most and the person whose messages you never open. It uses this information about you for a number of things – not all of them are advertising.
Facebook can use your information for understanding how it works and detecting unwanted behaviour. It can tell when its app crashes and uses that behaviour to created fixes in its code; spot suspicious login attempts for your profile and detect if accounts are spamming other users or behaving in strange ways. There’s also personalisation: Facebook may recommend certain groups, or potential friends, based on the information it collects about you.
Facebook isn’t just Facebook though. The overall company, the Facebook Company, includes Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Oculus. All the companies “share infrastructure, systems and technology”. While this means Facebook can detect accounts that spam on WhatsApp and punish them on Facebook as well, it’s also another way for information about you to be collected and inferred.
What makes Facebook different to most other companies is the way that it tracks you when you’re not thumbing your way through the platform. The company’s technology is spread across millions of websites, plus within the apps you use from other companies, and it can use all of this information to build up its knowledge about what types of ads you may be more likely to click on. The more information it has about you, the more specific the ads can be. And thus, Facebook can charge more for them.
Unless you want to delete the Facebook app from your phone or stop using it on the web, there’s very little you can do to stop Facebook from tracking your behaviour. However, there are some ways to limit the information it collects about you and control what’s fed into the systems that serve you advertising.
If you want to take back some control you need to understand what information you are giving Facebook. Everything that you’ve ever done on Facebook – including in groups, changes to your profile, on marketplace and more – can be accessed on the your information page.
There are 18 different categories of information that you’ve proactively given Facebook. These are the things you’ve uploaded, shared or entered on the platform. If you’ve been using Facebook actively for more than a decade these categories will give you a snapshot of a large chunk of your life.
There are some limited ways to control this information that you’ve shared: clicking on each of the categories will give you an activity log. For instance, accessing your groups will show you each time you joined and left a group. By hovering over an item in your activity log you’re able to delete it. However, this only works on one item at a time – there’s no bulk way to delete every comment you left in 2009.
As well as the 18 categories of information you’ve uploaded to Facebook, there are another six types of information about you that Facebook has. These are all listed at the bottom of the your information page. These fall into: data about ads and businesses, search history, security information, location, information associated with your account and voice recordings. The ‘About you’ tab will also give a description of what Facebook thinks of your friends. For me its “life stage description” is: starting adult life.
You can’t delete all the information about you but there are some measures you can take. You can delete your search history, including the videos you have searched for and searches you may have made with your voice. See everywhere you are logged in and force logouts for particularly computers or phones.
How to stop Instagram from tracking everything you do
Perhaps the two biggest things you should do from these settings are check whether Facebook is accessing the contacts from your phone and whether you have facial recognition turned on. Both of these are ways the company is able to learn who you are associated with and the people you spend time with.
This page will show you the contact details of people who have been uploaded from your phone or other devices. Facebook points out that by uploading their data from your phone you might have uploaded any contact nicknames and other information associated with their entries on your device.
You can delete uploaded contact details from this page but to really take control you need to stop continuous contact uploading. That’s done from a different location (accessed through these instructions). There are a couple of pain points in turning off the contacts you’re uploading from your devices: you have to change the setting on every individual phone or tablet you’re logged into Facebook from. And turning off automatic contact uploading on Facebook won’t turn it off in the Messenger App.
You should also check to see if you have Facebook’s facial recognition settings turned on or off. If they’re on then Facebook will scan images for your face print and let you know whether you’re in a photo or video automatically. This option has replaced the tagging option for photos – the company says it can also be used to help stop impersonations happening.
Turn off location tracking
Facebook also tracks your location. This is primarily done through your phone or tablet that may have GPS turned on. Depending on the settings on your phone you can limit Facebook’s access to your precise location to when you’re using the app, at all times or not at all. These settings can be found in iOS or Android permissions but there’s also an option in Facebook that allows them to be turned on or off here. There’s also a location history which will show you everywhere you’ve been on a map.
Despite turning Facebook location settings off the company may still know plenty about where you are in the world. The IP address from your phone or browser will also tell Facebook roughly where you are and, obviously, if someone else tags you in a specific place or event that’s information being provided to Facebook.
Limit Facebook’s ad techniques
The company’s ads preferences will give the deepest insights into what Facebook really knows about you, beyond the information you’ve proactively given it. This page is an amalgamation of your interests, the companies that have uploaded your contact details, and how ads are shown to you.
The interests section shows you the topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in: these include brands and individual topics, such as ‘law’. How does Facebook work these out? It’s based on what you do on Facebook and the Pages and ads you may have clicked on. You can uncheck any of these categories by clicking the cross in the top right-hand corner of each interest.
There’s also information on the companies that have uploaded your contact details to Facebook. If you join a brand’s mailing list or give your contact details when buying a product it’s highly likely they will add you to their databases and this can be used within Facebook advertising. Companies that upload you onto their lists can make sure you’re shown specific ads, or in some cases stop their ads being shown to you as you may already be a subscriber. There’s a ‘view controls’ option that lets you limit what companies uploading your information can do.
Arguably the biggest way to control the ads that are shown to you is changing the options in ‘Your information’ on the ads page. This section allows advertisers to show you ads based on specific and very personal things about you. These include showing ads to you if you based on your relationship status, job title, employer and education. Turning these off can stop ads being shown about some of your most personal and private attributes.
Other ad settings allow you to control ads you see that Facebook gets from other companies and your other behaviour online (such as web browsing and your use of Instagram, WhatsApp and other companies it owns). You can turn these options off and stop your browsing history being used to show you products and ads on Facebook. To limit the ads you are shown you can set them to “not allowed”.
None of these options will stop Facebook showing you ads – after all, that’s how it makes money – but will limit the types of ads you see. Limiting how ads can be served to you should stop many advertisements that are based on your specific behaviour, such as seeing that pushchair you were just searching for appearing on Facebook, and in overall make your adverts more general.
Control what happens off Facebook
As we’ve mentioned, Facebook doesn’t just gather information from what you do on Facebook. Its advertising network gathers information from other websites and apps that you use online.
If you want to limit the apps that directly integrate with Facebook you can see where you have logged into the social network from here and turn off those logins. Be warned: this will mean you may have to log in to other services, such as Spotify, using usernames and passwords, so it’s worth making sure the details you’re using are secure before you take the step.
The information Facebook gets from other websites is mostly gathered in three ways: through the Facebook Pixel, Facebook Share button and the Facebook Like button. The way these systems work is very similar. The code from the Facebook products is inserted on other websites and it can collect data about you.
Unlike the Facebook Share and Like buttons, which are pretty obvious to see, the Facebook Pixel is hidden. The Pixel is a tiny bit of code that can be added to websites and works like a cookie: it assigns an identifier to who is visiting that site and collects information about the pages they’ve visited. Everyone – even if you’re not on Facebook – is given a Facebook ID and this is associated with either your account or the devices that you use.
The tools are everywhere. In 2018, during the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook revealed how widely used the Facebook Pixel and Share buttons are. It said that in April of that year there were around 8.4 million websites using the Like button, another million using the Share button and 2.2 million Pixels on websites. It’s not easy to work out what percentage of the web these tools are on but given most major websites use the tracking tools it’s fair to assume that almost all the websites you visit regularly have them in place.
There are a few ways to control this data. As mentioned in the advertising settings section above you can stop Facebook from showing you adverts based on data collected from Facebook. This doesn’t mean the data collection will stop but it does mean you won’t be shown adverts based on your behaviour elsewhere.
There’s also the option to “clear” your off-Facebook activity: this includes information that businesses have shared with Facebook. There is a caveat, though. Facebook’s information on the tool says that it will still be collected and potentially given to advertisers for 48-hours. When it is disconnected from your account the data won’t be wiped from Facebook altogether, just disaggregated in its systems. In short: it’s decoupled from your profile but doesn’t get deleted entirely.
If you really want to limit the information about your browsing being collected then you need to change your behaviour. Using a privacy-browser that blocks cookies and trackers is the most effective way to limit online tracking.
Download data and delete Facebook
If you decide you’re fed up with Facebook – for whatever reason – you can just delete its apps from your devices and logout. Sometimes a break can be helpful. But if you’d rather just completely cut loose from the platform you can always delete your account entirely. Before you do, you should download your data, which can include all your previous posts, photos, groups and much more. Then you can delete Facebook.
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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