Facebook And Other Firms Have A Ton Of Data On You. Here's How To Limit That

Apr 12, 2018
Originally published on April 12, 2018 11:42 pm

After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, Facebook users — among many — are still wondering if online privacy still exists.

At the hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.) asked Zuckerberg if Facebook had detailed profiles on even those who had never signed up for the social networking site.

He replied, "In general, we collect data of people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes."

Investigative reporter Julia Angwin says that Facebook is not the only company that collects data in this way.

"What Facebook does — like Google actually, and a lot of Internet companies — is they have little invisible tracking technologies that they place on websites all over the Internet," she says. "That allows them to sort of see where you're going, and that's why ads can follow you around. And generally this idea of tracking everyone around the Internet is actually, unfortunately, a pretty well established practice that Facebook is one of many companies doing."


Interview Highlights

On the kind of data Facebook is looking for

Facebook is looking to know basically as much as possible about its users. When I looked at the ad categories that they had collected about people, they were extremely specific — things like "this person likes grass," or "this person is really interested in a certain type of wrestling." There was one ad category they had, which was a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.

You know, these are the kinds of things they'd like to know about you because they're hoping some advertiser will want to buy that ad category.

On how to prevent your information from being shared

There's a couple things you can do. One is, you can go and work your way through all of Facebook's privacy settings and try to lock them down as much as possible.

Another thing you can do to get rid of the tracking that happens when you're not on Facebook — you can use ad tracking blocking tools. So I use something called Ghostery. There's something — Privacy Badger. There's a bunch of different tools like this, and they will say, "There are 15 different trackers on this website. Do you want to allow any of them?" And you can say no.

On if there's too much focus on Facebook

I think yes and no. Facebook is probably better at collecting so much data about everyone. Until two weeks ago, when they announced they were ending it, they were actually buying data from data brokers about your offline transactions and all the stuff that they couldn't see when you were on the Internet: your level of income, your car ownership. They've just said they're going to end that.

But the truth is that we're in a world where every business is racing to collect as much data as possible, because Google and Facebook have shown that monetizing that data could be extremely lucrative. And so, unfortunately, it's true that everyone is racing to get enormous amounts of data about us, and we don't have a huge amount of control over that until perhaps Congress maybe steps in with some of the things that they've been discussing in the past few days.

Jessica Cheung and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio version of this story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is back in Silicon Valley after two days of testimony on Capitol Hill. And lawmakers are focused on other issues today. But Facebook users and really anyone who uses the Internet, well, we're still wondering if there's any such thing as online privacy. Listen to this exchange from the House hearing yesterday between Representative Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Zuckerberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN RAY LUJAN: Facebook has detailed profiles on people who have never signed up for Facebook - yes or no.

MARK ZUCKERBERG: Congressman, in general, we collect data on people have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes to prevent the kind of scraping that you were just referring to.

CORNISH: To talk about the many ways Facebook collects data on people and what, if anything, we can do about it, we've reached out to Julia Angwin. She's an investigative reporter formerly at ProPublica. Welcome to the program.

JULIA ANGWIN: It's great to be here.

CORNISH: Whether you're on Facebook or not, what are the kinds of attributes Facebook is looking for? What are they looking for in the way of data?

ANGWIN: Facebook is looking to know basically as much as possible about its users, things like this person likes grass or this person is really interested in a certain type of wrestling. There was one ad category they had which was a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations. You know, these are the kinds of things they'd like to know about you because they're hoping some advertiser will want to buy that ad category.

CORNISH: I went and downloaded my Facebook archive to see what they had on me, and some things were not so surprising - right? - topics that I had clicked on, not surprisingly a lot of public radio stations and ads and news sites, a tremendous number of advertisers from various places I had shopped, whether it was, like, ASOS or Netflix or AAA or whatever. But then when I went to the contact info section, they didn't have anything. And I wonder if, like, there is some measure here of personal responsibility, right? Like, I didn't put that data in, and so they don't have it.

ANGWIN: Yeah. You didn't put it in maybe, and so that's why they don't have it. But that's not to say that your contact information isn't in other people's files, right? So that's the problem is that even if you limit what you put in, other people may contribute more.

CORNISH: For people who hear this and decide that maybe they don't want Facebook to collect all of this information, is there anything they can actually do about it?

ANGWIN: Well, there's a couple of things you can do. One is you can go and work your way through all of Facebook's privacy settings and try to lock them down as much as possible. Another thing you can do to get rid of the tracking that happens when you're not on Facebook, you can use ad tracking blocking tools. So I use something called Ghostery. There's something - Privacy Badger. There's a bunch of different tools like this, and they will say there are 15 different trackers on this website. Do you want to allow any of them? And you can say no.

CORNISH: Is there too much focus on Facebook? I mean, when I think about consumer data brokers - right? - who are buying and selling information, every brand I've ever dealt with has collected my information, and I'm now a customer on one of their customer lists, which they buy and sell, it just seems like this is a small part of the problem that people are focusing on.

ANGWIN: I mean, I think yes and no. Facebook is probably better at collecting so much data about everyone. Until two weeks ago when they announced they were ending it, they were actually buying data from data brokers about your off-line transactions and your level of income, your car ownership. They've just said they're going to end that. But the truth is that we're in a world where every business is racing to collect as much data as possible because Google and Facebook have shown that monetizing that data can be extremely lucrative. And so unfortunately, it's true that everyone is racing to get enormous amounts of data about us, and we don't have a huge amount of control over that until perhaps Congress maybe steps in with some of the things that they've been discussing in the past few days.

CORNISH: That's Julia Angwin. She's an investigative reporter and author of the book "Dragnet Nation: A Quest For Privacy, Security, And Freedom In A World Of Relentless Surveillance." Julia, thanks for speaking with us.

ANGWIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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