What Facebook knows about you:
The political implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal are obviously enormous, and this is a stark reminder that the digital can bleed into ‘reality’ in ways that we never anticipated. But for the man on the street, it’s equally disconcerting to realise just how much Facebook actually has on us. Actually, it seems to be disturbing the upper-crust, as well: Elon Musk, Cher, Jim Carey and Will Ferrell have all deleted their Facebook pages, and Facebook’s shares have plummeted 16% since the leak was publicized – Carey sold his stocks.
I understand the exodus. Personally, I don’t want strangers to have untrammeled access to details about my sexual orientation, or my political affiliations; not because I am intent on hiding either, but because the ability to share or conceal this kind of information should be my prerogative; and for some users, the privacy of these details might be integral to their safety. Facebook: the familiar moniker assumes ominous, Orwellian overtones in this context. A book of names, and the people and places that link them: people you don’t know might know of you, and what you’re like, and what you like, and where to find you. It isn’t a pleasant prospect.
But while the data breach is unquestionably a sign that Facebook needs to revise its regulations, the fact remains that, in an age in which our online profiles constitute an important extension of our identities, the onus is on us to read the Terms and Conditions. It is possible – albeit somewhat disturbing – to uncover (and edit) a portion of the information Facebook’s gleaned from what you do on your newsfeed.
So I did.
The first and easiest measure is to review your privacy and security settings. There is a discreet, downwards-pointing arrow on the right-hand side of your screen. If you click it, you’ll find ‘settings’ towards the bottom of the menu; explore these to ensure that your posts are limited to the audience of your choosing, and remove information that you’d prefer to keep discreet. If you’re paranoid, disable location and web tracking. This is familiar terrain for most Facebook users, barring the very geriatric.
But then: once you’ve found your way to ‘settings’, at the bottom of the list that will appear on the left, you will find a little tab called ‘Ads.’ Click on it. It’s interesting.
It will reveal what some of what Facebook knows about ‘Your interests’, ‘Advertisers you’ve interacted with’, and ‘Your information.’ ‘Your information’ determines the kinds of ads Facebook integrates into your Newsfeed. ‘Your interests’ are premised on some assumptions Facebook has made about you, based on things you’ve ‘liked’ or commented on in the past. You can edit these, and most are comically inaccurate.
But then there’s ‘Advertisers you’ve interacted with’, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the most edifying tier by far. It’s also the creepiest – it allows you to review the advertisers that appear on your feed because Facebook knows you’re on their customer list.
Accordingly, I now know that Facebook knows that I’ve used Uber Eats, and Taxify. It seems to know that I’m a Vodacom customer, and that I have a Netflix account. It also knows that I sometimes buy books on Amazon, and that I have a Clicks club card. My history of eyebrow-mangling at various branches of Sorbet hasn’t eluded it – and it hasn’t forgotten that I once downloaded a mindful breathing app, on impulse, late at night.
Now you’ll understand that there’s a self-sustaining network of information circulating about you: a network that you expand every time you create log-in details, or exchange your email address for a rewards card. Is the violation worth the 2-for-1s?