When somebody who used Facebook hears that the social media site is gathering data on them, the first thing they think about is what they have personally posted on their feed. The typical person can’t comprehend that Facebook is tracking much more than their updates.
Does this mean the typical person is ignorant of how data is collected? In a certain sense, yes.
But even when this ignorance is not present, most people will generally think first about what they have posted and shared on Facebook and not necessarily about what their computer, laptop or mobile devices was also doing in the background when they opened their Facebook.
Why not? Because their reference point is their personal experience on Facebook.
Facebook and Big Data
In reality, Facebook is data harvesting a pantheon of information beyond their updates and likes. According to an article published November 16, 2011, in USA Today, Facebook is constantly collecting data on both users and non-users of the site, tracking them across websites, none of which are owned by Facebook:
“Facebook officials are now acknowledging that the social media giant has been able to create a running log of the web pages that each of its 800 million or so members has visited during the previous 90 days. Facebook also keeps close track of where millions more non-members of the social network go on the Web, after they visit a Facebook web page for any reason.
“To do this, the company relies on tracking cookie technologies similar to the controversial systems used by Google, Adobe, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others in the online advertising industry, says Arturo Bejar, Facebooks’ engineering director.”
Widespread Big Data Collection
The amount of data harvested by Facebook and other sites is jaw-dropping. As Bernard Marr put it in his February 8, 2014 SmartDataCollective blog post: “We as the users of Facebook happily feed their big data beast. We spend 10 billion Facebook messages per day, click the Like button 4.5 billion times and upload 350 million pictures each and every day. Overall, there are 17 billion location-tagged posts and a staggering 250 billion photos on Facebook.
“All this information means Facebook knows what we look like, who are friends are, what our views are on most things, when our birthday is, whether we are in a relationship or not, the location we are at, what we like and dislike, and much more. This is an awful lot of information (and power) in the hands of one commercial company.”
Facebook and Your Face
Facebook also has funded image processing and “facial recognition” software that essentially allows the site to track you anywhere you go. It knows what you and your friends look like based on the images you have voluntarily shared on its site. So it can search the web, all other Facebook profiles and other places to find photos of you and your friends.
That’s how Facebook can make “tag suggestions” when you post pictures of people on your account. But how that facial recognition software can be used is mind-blowing.
Could Facebook’s algorithm track your body shape? Can it analyze your vacation photos from the beach to determine that you have put on a little weight recently? Could this information cause them to place an ad for a local weight loss clinic on your feed? The possibilities are chilling.
Facebook and Your Feelings
But it doesn’t end there. One recent study conducted by Cambridge University in conjunction with Microsoft Research found that it’s possible to accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes just by looking at what you have “Liked” on Facebook.
These can include such things as your sexual orientation, satisfaction with life, intellect, emotional stability, religious beliefs, alcohol and drug consumption, relationship status, age, gender, race, political views, and much more.
And the things you “Like” on Facebook don’t have to do anything at all with any of these specific attributes. In some cases, a single “Like” is enough for the algorithm to generate a highly accurate description of you.
When most people look at Facebook, they don’t realize that Facebook is looking back at them even more intently.