The Biggest Lie Facebook Told the Public

Facebook on an iPhone with money and credit cards.

Facebook has not always been completely honest with its users | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is the world’s most popular social network, and one that we all know we’re probably using too much. In fact, there are plenty of good reasons why you might want to stop using Facebook altogether — if you can shake your addiction to mindlessly scrolling through a News Feed populated by mundane updates from your college buddies and cat videos that capture your attention just enough that you can’t scroll past them. But if you can’t shake the feeling that Facebook has been lying to you about your privacy this whole time, you might be on to something.

After Facebook’s ethically sketchy News Feed experiment came to light, it’s become obvious to users that the social networking giant doesn’t disclose everything that goes on behind the scenes. While Facebook isn’t the only major tech company to monitor how users respond to a product and then make adjustments to improve the user experience, Facebook has gained a unique reputation for playing fast and loose with users’ privacy. In fact, the biggest lie that Facebook has told the public is that your information is private unless you decide to make it public.

That may be ostensibly true. But as Eric Ravenscraft reports for LifeHacker, Facebook erodes your privacy regardless of the protection promised by its waxing and waning privacy policies. Facebook has its own rules for how it handles your data, and it’s largely allowed to do — and change — whatever it wants to. Need an example? In 2005, the only data that was visible to all Facebook users was your name, your profile photo, your gender, and which networks you belonged to. None of your data was completely public. But by 2010, anyone without a Facebook account could potentially see your posts, your photos, your likes, your friends, and other data unless you specifically and intentionally made it private.

Facebook has since changed its default setting from public to private. But that doesn’t change the fact that Facebook made it far too easy for unsuspecting users to accidentally share with the world information that they intended to keep private. And even as default settings change, the reality remains that Facebook is free to change its policies and practices as it sees fit — and it typically undermines your privacy by doing so. Need more evidence that Facebook is lying when it tells you that your posts, your messages, and your personal information are private? Just read on.

Your Facebook posts aren’t as private as you think

Saed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Your facebook information may not be as private as you thought | Saed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

There are many things that you shouldn’t post on Facebook if you’re worried about your privacy. Even if you think that you have your Facebook privacy settings locked down, it’s still pretty difficult to control where your posts and photos end up. You can’t control what your friends do with your posts, and with just a few likes, a post can be visible to hundreds of people that you don’t know. The upshot is that it’s far too easy for posts to turn up when potential employers, prospective business partners, or university admissions officers search for you on the social network.

Jennifer Jiyoung Suh and Eszter Hargittai, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Northwestern University, found that many people’s Facebook posts aren’t as private as they think. Suh and Hargittai compared the intended audience with the actual audience for study participants’ posts and found “considerable mismatch between the two despite most participants expressing confidence in their ability to manage their information on the site.”

Some posts were accidentally shared as public, which means that anyone on the web would be able to find them. (Posts were more likely to be accidentally made public from a non-mobile device, interestingly enough, which runs counter to participants’ expectations that non-mobile devices are more reliable and convenient to use than mobile devices.)

It’s not only other Facebook users who can find your information

Facebook app on smartphone

Facebook uses your internet search history to target you with relevant ads | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook enables companies to track your movements online. When you use Facebook, you’re giving the social network access to lots of information about you — information that it uses to show you ads and try to sell you things. Facebook even uses data about the websites you browse and the apps you use to show you more relevant ads. Christina Bonnington reported for Wired mid-2014 that Facebook had been serving ads based on what you actively shared with the social network, as well as Pages and statuses that you’d liked.

Facebook’s knowledge of your web history and app usage — as collected by websites that embed Facebook’s like button, offer its social login, or use its measurement and advertising services — enables it to share data about you with advertising, measurement, and analytics services, as well as with Facebook’s vendors, service providers, and other partners. That information can include things like your location, your gender, your email address, your phone number, your relationship status, and more.

You can stop Facebook from using your web history for ad targeting by using the Digital Advertising Alliance’s consumer choice page, and then by installing an ad blocker. You’ll want to turn off ad tracking in Facebook’s mobile app by opting out of interest-based ads on Android or limiting ad-tracking on iOS. And you can also take a look at Business Insider’s tips on how to see the apps that have access to information about you, and dive into whether or not they should really be able to track you.

Your private messages aren’t private

The Facebook Like button

Ad agencies can still look at your private conversations on Facebook | Brenda Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As if it weren’t bad enough that even private posts can be shared far beyond their intended audience and that third parties can can learn all kinds of information about you, your private messages don’t actually stay private on Facebook. Lauren C. Williams reported for ThinkProgress a couple of years ago that the social network had already announced that it would take a look at your private conversations when figuring out how to target ads to you. On a conference call with investors, Mark Zuckerberg explained that while “Facebook historically has focused on friends and public content” in targeting ads, “now, with Messenger and WhatsApp, we’re taking a couple of different approaches towards more private content as well.”

When you’re sending a private message to a friend, you’ll likely share details that might seem insignificant, but can actually provide Facebook and its partners with valuable insight into who you are. Privacy advocates worry that as personal conversations are tapped by companies who share information with advertisers, information about your mental or medical history could affect the insurance or even the jobs you can get in the future if it ends up in the right (or wrong) hands. The information shared on your profile, in your messages, and by your browsing history may not seem that significant. But as Lori Andrews reported for The New York Times years ago, these “bits and bytes about your life can easily be used against you. Whether you can obtain a job, credit or insurance can be based on your digital doppelgänger — and you may never know why you’ve been turned down.”

Government agencies and employers alike gather data online to confirm relationships, figure out where you are, or decide whether or not to hire you. As if that weren’t bad enough, you also have to realize that, as Andrews puts it, “stereotyping is alive and well in data aggregation.” Decisions on your credit and your health insurance could be made automatically based on those stereotypes — all because Facebook is as eager to overshare your personal details as your college buddies are to overshare about their latest night on the town.