Facebook's user data gathering prowess has been common knowledge for some time now, but one journalist's impromptu experiment suggests it is even more ubiquitous and pervasive than previously believed. Nick Whigham, a reporter for the New Zealand Herald, decided to test out a feature on Facebook that allows users to download a 'secret' file showing how much personal history the company has gathered about them. What he discovered is that Facebook not only has disturbingly vast consumer profiles on all 1.4 billion daily users but also tracks the internet movement and personalities of people who don't even log into the website.
A large part of Facebook's business model is selling the information it collects about users to advertisers. It's free to us because we're the product. Its algorithms track your posts, likes, shares, and preferences, of course, but they also track your overall Internet activity — the websites you go to, your operating system, your IP address, and comments you happen to leave on random forums — via social media plugins and cookies on third-party websites. Even if you're not logged into Facebook, your browsing behavior is tracked by secret trackers called Pixels, which are embedded on over 10,000 websites. Sorry, social media Luddites — even if you've never used Facebook, your online activity is tracked everytime you merely visit a website that contains Facebook ads and trackers.
Whigham downloaded his Facebook files and was stunned by the specificity of the information. The 500MB zip files contained 105 biometric facial recognition files, photo metadata that includes where and when the photo was taken, his entire iPhone contact list with names and numbers, old tenancy agreements, photo scans of broadband bills, bank transfer screenshots, and, naturally, the entire archive of his Messenger chat logs.
Whigham urges people to download their file so they can see the extent to which their privacy is being violated by what he calls "surveillance capitalism."
How do its algorithms aggregate so much personal information? There are 98 data points Facebook uses to size you up, and some of them may stun you. They range from the square footage of your home to whether or not you're an early adopter of technology. They also look for "users who are interested in the Olympics, fall football, cricket, or Ramadan."
While much of the public seems to have become somewhat anesthetized to predatory data mining and privacy violations, legitimate legal challenges have finally begun to surface, and Facebook is finally facing some heat. Last month, a Belgian court ruled that the firm could not collect data on Internet users who do not have a Facebook account. Elsewhere, a federal judge recently dismissed Facebook's motion to dismiss an Illinois class action lawsuit charging the company with violating constitutional privacy rights.
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rodd Sims, whose organization is running a separate investigation into the privacy violations of multiple tech giants, including Facebook and Google, thinks it's time for people to really consider the full ramifications of opting into services that harvest their personal information.