Here’s the Data Facebook Has on Users and How the Company Gathers It

3 min
Facebook logos are pictured on the screens of a smartphone and a laptop computer in central London on Nov. 21, 2016. (Justin Tallis/Getty images)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in apology mode over how Facebook profile data was used in the 2016 election. Wednesday night on CNN, Zuckerberg said the company was not on top of data security like it should have been.

Here’s what happened. Facebook has tons and tons of apps on it made by third-party developers -- games, quizzes, etc. One of these third-party developers made a little personality quiz app. About 270,000 Facebook users took the quiz, and in doing so, allowed the app to download their personal data. This is common with third-party apps on Facebook. You check a box, they get your data. At the time, third-party apps could also access not only your data but all your friends’ data. So, presto, the data collected by the maker of this little quiz quickly ballooned from 270,000 profiles to reportedly around 87 million.

Third-party developers sign an agreement saying they won’t resell the data, but this one did. A marketing firm called Cambridge Analytica bought all the data. (Important note: this was not a hack or a data breach. The only shady thing that happened here is that the third-party developer broke an agreement and sold the data. How the developer first acquired the data was totally in line with Facebook’s policies at the time.) The Trump campaign then hired Cambridge Analytica, which used the data it had bought to build psychological profiles of people so that they could be sent content tailored to manipulate their emotions.

Now, a year and a half later, Facebook is feeling the backlash. A whistle-blower from Cambridge Analytica opened up to The Guardian. People are publicly deleting their accounts. Lawmakers are calling for regulations. There are reports of the FTC opening an investigation. The stock price is plunging. And Zuckerberg is on a public apology tour.

People are outraged that the Trump campaign used their Facebook data to target users with precise messaging. But what the Trump campaign did in terms of digital marketing really isn’t that special, said Jeffrey Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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“President Trump’s digital director said, I think correctly, that he simply used what was being used every day to sell us junk food, prescription drugs and the next movie to watch,” Chester said.

All the Trump campaign did, Chester said, was leverage Facebook targeting tools that have been honed in the commercial space for years.

Facebook is known for offering advertisers unprecedented customer targeting. Companies and political campaigns have access to thousands of personal details they can use to focus in on particular people. In 2016, The Washington Post published an article showing how fine-grained the targeting had become. It has only gotten more sophisticated since then.

Companies can use Facebook data to target people based on demographics, interests, online habits, offline habits, personal finances, the list goes on and on. It all adds up to a very sophisticated profile that a company or political campaign can use to predict and influence your behavior. Here’s how Chester puts it: “They’re able to use big data techniques to understand our vulnerabilities, our sensitivities, our fears.”

Facebook is called a social media company, but really data is the money maker. The more it harvests from users, the better advertisers can target, and the more they’ll pay to put up ads on the site. This is why people say Facebook users aren’t the customers, they’re the product.

Facebook is "free," but users pay with all sorts of personal data said Frederike Kaltheuner, Data Exploitation Program head of Privacy International.

“It’s thousands of thousands of very intimate details about you,” Kaltheuner said.

Facebook has several ways to get all these intimate details. The most obvious is what we just give them. Everything on your profile and whatever you like and post: pictures, thoughts, messages. If you have the mobile app, Facebook also tracks wher you are. “But this is only just the tip of the iceberg,” Kaltheuner said.

Kaltheuner said Facebook generates more data by analyzing your behavior, by “data mining.” Like if they see from the location data on your Facebook mobile that you’re always traveling from one place to another, they can infer you are a commuter. They can see how you interact with your friends and analyze the nature of those relationships. You get the point.

Facebook also traces you when you are off of its site and on other websites or apps. In what is a common practice, the company uses cookies, trackers in your browser, to follow you when you visit other websites. It sees what you see on other apps by allowing you to “login with Facebook.” On top of all this, Facebook buys tons of offline personal data about things like your personal finances and where you shop.

What makes Facebook powerful is how it can tie all of these different data sets together, creating rich digital profiles of its users that can then be targeted by advertisers, or, as we are increasingly seeing, political campaigns.

Peter Eckersley is the chief computer scientist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He said what is really scary about giving data to Facebook is that we don’t know what Facebook, or someone else, could use all this data for in the future. And because of advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, it is becoming possible to do more with the same old data.

“As AI progresses,” Eckersley said, “Facebook can learn more and more about us with the same data.” For instance, artificial intelligence allows Facebook to analyze photos, recognizing people and objects -- data that wasn’t possible to extract years ago when you may have first loaded up a photo.

“We’re just starting to realize that we’ve given Facebook all of this data and with that data we’ve given Facebook incredible power over us, our societies, and our political processes,” Eckersley said.

It’s not just Facebook who has this power, but anyone who gets a  hold of that data. As we saw in the 2016 election, we can’t be sure who could get their hands on Facebook’s precious data and what it could be used for.

Zuckerberg said the company is trying to shore things up before the midterms. He should know how important it is to protect personal data. It’s the currency his company is built on.

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