Facebook: It Knows More About You Than You Think

Man and woman using their smartphones

Man and woman on smartphones | Source: iStock

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that each time you log in to Facebook, like a photo in your News Feed, search for a friend on the social network, or talk to someone on Messenger, you add another data point to the social network’s vast trove of information about you, your interests, and your activity.

Jon Evans reports for TechCrunch that it’s probable that “Facebook boasts the broadest, deepest, and most comprehensive dataset of human information, interests, and activity ever collected. (Only the NSA knows for sure.) Google probably has more raw data, between Android and searches – but the data they collect is (mostly) much less personal. Of all the Stacks, I think it’s fair to say, Facebook almost certainly knows you best.”

Facebook can use all of the data it has on you and your behavior to target advertisements to you. But more interesting, according to Evans, is the possibility of interpolating from this data, i.e., deducing insights that you never explicitly revealed to Facebook from your online behavior, or extrapolating from it, i.e., using the data to predict your reaction to new information and situations. “What’s interesting,” Evans writes, “is the notion that Facebook might be able to paint an extraordinarily accurate pointillist picture of you, with all the data points you give it as the pixels.”

It may not be so implausible that the social network could, for instance, figure out with a high degree of confidence “whether you’re a hard worker or a shirker, and whether you’re a good or bad credit/insurance risk,” using the data it collects on how you use its site and app, what links and photos you post, what apps you use, and the things you like.

Evans notes that that can of extrapolation may not be nearly as futuristic as it might sound. Not only does Facebook already have the depth of data to make that happen, but it’s also been demonstrated that leveraging this sort of data works. For instance, your smartphone can tell whether you’re depressed, algorithms can judge your character, and the collective social graph formed by you and your partner can predict whether your relationship is in trouble.

Facebook is continually expanding the amount of data it collects and the reach of its algorithms. The social network recently announced the addition of universal search to its platform. When you use Facebook Search, the platform will return anything you’re allowed to see from among the 2 trillion posts that are indexed, including public posts, posts from friends, and public conversations anchored to links that have been shared widely on Facebook. (If that worries you, it’s worth noting that, as Josh Constine reports for TechCrunch, although the privacy of your posts isn’t changing, everything you’ve said will be easier to find. So it would probably be wise to check what you’ve shared publicly and hide anything that’s potentially problematic from public view.)

But if you’re worried about what Facebook is going to do with all of those posts that it’s indexed, it’s less certain how you can or should protect your privacy. The uncertainty surrounding what data Facebook collects and how it uses that data could have a negative effect on users’ willingness to share their thoughts and interests on the social network.

Evans projects, “After all, if and when people discover that they inadvertently reveal things they may wish to keep private by simply being themselves on Facebook … they may well decide to stop being themselves on Facebook. Which will mean less candor, less sharing, more forethought and judiciousness — and less time spent on Facebook.” It’s not difficult to imagine a not-too-distant future in which vast troves of data and the software used to make sense of them could reveal things about you that you thought were secret, and reliably predict your future behavior.

Facebook already has data points like your basic biographical information, your online and mobile activity, your interests, what you look like,  and can even figure out what people you might be dating. As the social network builds more sophisticated ways to leverage that data in insight on who you are and how you’re likely to behave in the future, you’ll likely continue to be surprised and unnerved by how well Facebook seems to know you thanks to the ever-growing number of data points it’s collected on you and your activity.

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