Data collection

What data is being collected about you online?

Many of us are aware that the information we share online might be gathered and passed on to other parties, but fewer people know how this works or what you can do to review and limit what personal data collection.

Facebook is obviously a huge player in this area, with over 2 million active users a month. They primarily use the personal information you share on the site to serve you advertising which is more likely to be relevant to you and your interests. While some might consider this intrusive, others might accept it as the price of using the free social networking and messaging services, or even welcome better targeted advertising. Whatever your view, it is worth knowing what data the company is collecting about you and how it is being used.

Checking your advertising preferences

We all know that when you set up an account, Facebook and Instagram prompt you to enter some basic information and ‘complete your profile’ with relationship status, employer and so on. But by tracking your behaviour they also gather further information about you. By checking the ad preferences page you can review what information you have given to the site and which details they can share with advertisers. This includes the information on your profile itself and your interests based on their tracking of the pages you’ve liked or visited – even pages outside of Facebook. To stop receiving ads based on this information you can turn off the relevant permissions or click the x icon on a topic of interest.

If you want to further limit what data Facebook holds about you, visit your Facebook profile and click ‘Edit Profile’. Here you can review whether you wish to unlike pages or delete details of your education, employment history and so on.

Digging deeper with third-party services

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn have algorithms which make some educated guesses about you based on your profile and your activity. To get an initial idea of the data they might be gathering, you can check your activity log via your profile. There are also a number of third-party services which can help reveal what information you are giving to the site.

Data Selfie is a Chrome extension which monitors your Facebook activity and can help give you an idea how the company might track and interpret that data. However, its conclusions are largely theoretical rather than definite indications of what Facebooks knows about you. Websites like Stalkscan and the Intel Techniques Search Tool offer a more comprehensive analysis of your account, showing details such as the hotels and bars you’ve checked into, photos and videos you’ve been tagged in and the pages you’ve liked. Websites like these only give an indication of Facebook’s data gathering; it won’t reveal the full, complex algorithms used to curate your news feed and categorise users into groups that advertisers can target.

Disabling location and web tracking

Beyond your activity on the network itself, Facebook gathers personal data in two other key areas: your location (revealed by your smartphone) and your activity elsewhere online. Whilst it might feel creepy, there are benefits to allowing the Facebook app know your location. This allows you to check into places, search for bars, restaurants or services nearby and even find your friends. Over time, it also informs Facebook where you tend to go, allowing them to tailor the ads you see based on this. You can disable this permission for the app to track your location via the settings on your phone.

In order to gather even more information for ad targeting, Facebook can also track some of your web browsing activity and might receive notifications when you visit specific websites. In addition, when Facebook share your information with other marketing platforms and sites, this is a two-way street and those sites might also send the social network data they have gathered about you. It is possible to prevent Facebook from tracking you around the web by turning off ads based on your use of websites and apps via Ad Preferences. The Digital Advertising Alliance also allows you to opt out of numerous cross-site tracking programs, including the one used by Facebook.

It’s not possible to completely stop social media sites collecting any information about you and your habits – this is often how websites which are free to use make their money. However, you can make yourself better informed about what you might be revealing and exercise some control over what you share and how it is used. To ensure your data is protected, ask us about our Security Audit Package.