Privacy On Facebook
In just a few years Facebook has grown to be one of the biggest companies in the world with nearly 2.5 billion active monthly members. It's a fantastic tool that we use to stay in touch with family & friends, to share life events, and to organise drinks and other gatherings. But all that functionality comes with a potential cost - our privacy.
There's essentially 2 types of privacy issues on Facebook:
- Controlling who can see all our posts and your profile;
- Understanding what Facebook knows about us, and what it does with this data.
Whether you're actually bothered about how Facebook handle your data is purely a personal decision. Some people object to the creepy nature of how they (and other internet giants such as Google) are able to learn and infer so much about us, such as our relationship or financial status, whereas others are simply of the opinion "so what?".
This page discusses some of the issues, and gives tips on how to take control of your privacy if you wish to.
What does Facebook know about us?
Everything we do on Facebook means it learns a little bit more about us. And it's not just what we willingly post on our feed - Facebook gathers data on us in many other ways too:
- Our friends might tag us in their posts or photos;
- Friends might let Facebook read their phone's address books, complete with our details;
- When we log into Facebook they know where we are and what device we're using;
- Clicking 'Like' buttons on other websites links back to our account;
- We fill out our account profile with our age, location, and details such as our relationship status and schools we went to;
- We sometimes also give Facebook our phone number for security purposes;
- Facebook also knows which apps and websites we use when we log into them with our Facebook account;
- And Facebook have even been accused of shadier practices too, such as harvesting text messages and details of phone calls without users' knowledge
How is my data used on Facebook?
There's a saying that if you're not paying for something then you're the product. And with Facebook, that couldn't be more true.
Whilst Facebook obviously use our own data to help us - for example by showing relevant posts or suggesting friends - the main value of it for Facebook is to help them make money.
They are one of the worlds biggest advertiser platforms, using their huge dataset to help companies target their adverts at very specific audiences. Want to advertise your product to 35 year old males based in Toronto who like beer & the Blue Jays baseball team? No problem!
The fact they do this is widely known. What is often less well understood however is how Facebook can use what it knows to infer additional information about us, such as our religion or sexual orientation - even if we've never given them that data ourselves.
And whilst they don't sell our data to advertisers (they just allow advertisers to select who to target their ads at), several controversies have nonetheless revealed how they previously made our data freely available to developers via apps & games, including to a marketing firm who used this data to help influence the 2016 US Presidential election.
Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, has since announced they've taken steps to limit this data sharing.
How can we take back control?
Whilst there's many privacy settings available to control who can see our profile & our posts, we have very little say in what else Facebook does with our data or who it grants access to.
That's why - if you are concerned about how your data is used - being in control of your data relies not just on ensuring that privacy settings are locked down, but also on managing what data Facebook are collecting in the first place. We cover both of these aspects below.
Managing what Facebook knows about us
What we post & our profile
BBC/CIFAS video showing how easily we sometimes give personal information away (source: YouTube)
Everyone has their own boundaries as to what they're happy to share online, and who they're happy to share it with.
Whether through choice or accidentally, we should always try to avoid making public:
- Our home address;
- Our date of birth (or age & birthday);
- When we're away from home;
- Anytime you're lying to someone about your whereabouts!
- Other personal details, such as your phone number or email address;
- Any contentious political views.
Of course this doesn't neccesarily mean we should stop posting our birthday or holiday photos - but we should all be paying attention as to who can see our posts and our profile information - see the next section for details on how to control this.
Our guide to protecting your privacy online has several examples of where excessive online sharing can bring real-world harm.
As seen above on this page, Facebook collects data on us in a huge variety of ways. We can't control what information our friends give them, but if you are bothered by the data Facebook collects then there's a few little things you can do:
- Stay logged out of Facebook as you browse the internet (actively click to 'logout' of Facebook in your browser - don't just close the window or tab). Many webpages have Facebook "Like" buttons or Facebook-powered comment boards built in; if you're logged in to Facebook when you visit these pages then Facebook knows you've been to that page, even if you don't click the "Like" button.
- Be careful which apps you use your Facebook account to log in with, and carefully review all the permissions and data the app asks for access to (see below).
- Disable location tracking if you have the Facebook app installed on your phone. You can either do this from within the app itself, or in the phone settings you can deny it access to your location.
Adjusting our privacy settings
Facebook make a lot of settings available within their app and website to allow us to control many aspects of our privacy. It's worth regularly reviewing these to ensure you're happy with your settings (and to check that Facebook haven't changed the available settings).
How to change your settings
Almost all privacy options can be found in the Settings section of your Facebook account. To access this follow these easy steps:
The mobile app does also have a "Privacy shortcuts" option too (see the screenshot in Step 1, just below the highlighted "Settings" menu). You can go through this if you want as well, although all the same options (and more) are in the main Settings menu.
The screenshots and instructions on the rest of this page are for the desktop version of Facebook, however all the settings are accessible from your phone apps too - look for the menu items & options with the same names as below.
Who can see my posts?
This is perhaps the most obvious of all privacy settings to tweak. Within the Privacy menu there's an option for choosing the default group of people who'll be able to see your future posts (don't worry you can still change individual posts).
Within the same section you can also limit the audience of all your past posts in one go (there are limitation so do make sure you read the description first). This can be useful in case there's any posts you've done previously that were set to be publically visible, even if you've forgotten or didn't know they were public.
Be aware that anything you post in a public forum, such as commenting within a group, may still be visible to others..
Who can see my personal information?
When you created your Facebook account you'll have provided various bits of information, such as your name (obviously!), your date of birth, where you live, and perhaps your job or school too. You may have subsequently edited this as well for example to add any new relationships.
To edit who can see your profile information you need to go to the "About Me" section in Facebook. To do this, click on your profile picture at the top of the page and then select the "About" menu heading. You should now see all your profile information and be able to edit it too.
If you hover the mouse over any aspect of your profile, you'll see an option appear (to the right) to change who can see this. Ensure this is set for all your information as you want.
Did you know too that search engines can also see some of your information, unless you tell them not to? Back in the Privacy menu (see the previous step), find the option for "Do you want search engines outside of Facebook to link to your profile?" and change this to "No". Facebook have a help page on this too.
Who can find me and send friend requests?
In the same section where you just set whether your profile can be accessed by search engines or not, are various settings relating to how people can find you.
- Who can send you friend requests? Changing this to 'Friends of Friends' instead of 'Everyone' can help stop randoms or even ex partners from harassing you with invites. Note that there's also a specific setting to allow you to block individuals as well - select "Blocking" from the menu on the far left.
- Who can see your friends list? It's worth restricting the visibility of your friends list to just "Friends" (instead of the default "Public") to prevent scammers from reaching out to your friends as a way of getting to you.
- Who can look you up based on your phone number or email address? This feature can be useful as a way for people you meet to easily find you amongst all other Facebook members who share your name - but the downside is that people you'd rather avoid can also easily find you if they have your details (potential employers checking you out, for example).
What apps can access my information?
Apps having access to too much information is one of the areas in which Facebook has run into controversy previously. It's fairly easy though to review each one that you have linked to your account, and to restrict what they can access.
Step 1: On the left menu select "Apps and Websites"; you sould be shown every app that connects to Facebook. Select the "View and Edit" option for each one.
Step 2: A pop up appears for each app as you select them. Go through all of them and review what data each of them is able to access about you. Deny access to anything they don't need.
What can be posted to my timeline?
One of the great things about Facebook is the ability to post things to our friends' timelines, for example to share something funny or to start a conversation. But this has the potential for embarassment - you may not want some of the things your friends post to be visible to your family members or colleagues. Thankfully you can restrict this too.
Within the "Profile and Tagging" menu are several settings you can play with. It's worth thinking about the following especially:
- Who can post on your timeline? This will limit who can actually post anything to your timeline. By default any friend can write something to appear on your timeline, however you can restrict it so that only you can post anything there.
- Who can see what others post on your timeline? This setting has a lot of flexibility - you may want anything that your friends post to be visible to the world, or just to you. You can also create custom lists of who can see these posts.
- Who can see posts you're tagged in on your timeline? As well as friends posting directly to your timeline, if they tag you in a photo or mention you in a post then by default these are shared onto your timeline too. You can restrict who can see these posts by using this setting.
- Review posts you're tagged in before the post appears on your timeline? If you'd prefer that posts in which you're tagged aren't published straight onto your timeline then you have the option to approve them first. This can be useful to, for example, prevent any drunken photos you get tagged in from being shown on your timeline!
Is Facebook tracking my physical location?
As we move around each day our phones constantly know where we are. Facebook can use this information - if you let it - to target advertising at us, but also to send us recommendations (such as nearby restaurants that our friends have rated highly) or to tell us if our friends are nearby. Over time Facebook can build up quite a detailed knowledge of our lives and habits.
If you'd prefer not to share your location you can disable this in the "location" settings menu. This can only be done within the Facebook app on your phone, not on a computer.
Is Facebook tracking my other web activity?
Facebook owns many other companies, such as Instagram & WhatsApp, and has an extensive advertising network across non-Facebook websites. Many websites have also installed their "Like" buttons and comments boards too.
All of this adds up to the fact that Facebook can extensively track our internet activity - even when we're not using Facebook. Whilst we can't entirely escape this, we can ask Facebook not to track us.
Visit Facebook's ad settings page and go through the options here to deny Facebook access to your information.
The "Social Interactions" section allows you to stop Facebook from displaying to your friends that you've liked certain pages. For example if you like a Page that's running an ad, Facebook may show your friends that you've liked the Page when they see the ad. Depending on the product, there is a chance for embarassment here so it can definitely be worth disabling this "feature".
To be fair to Facebook they're far from alone in tracking users across the internet - see our page about online website tracking for more details, including links to setting your preferences with both Google & Bing.
How to download all your Facebook data
Over time we build up a huge amount of history on Facebook. Even if you're only a light user of it it's surprising how much our data builds up!
In response to concerns about privacy Facebook have made a great tool available that enables us to download our entire Facebook history. This includes everything they store on you including (amongst other data):
- Your friends;
- All photos & videos;
- Events you've attended;
- Pages you've liked;
- People you've defriended;
- Old relationship statuses.
Even "pokes" sent (remember them?) are present, as well as your advertising preferences and how you've been categorised you based on your activity & information (for example "Established Adult Life").
To download this simply click on the "Your Facebook information" option in the settings menu, and click "View" next to "Download Your Information". Once you've set the date range and the information you want to download then click the "Create File" button.
After a few minutes your data will be ready - you should receive a link via email. You'll then need to enter your password to begin the download process. Be warned - the file can be pretty huge depending on how long you've been on Facebook and how active you've been!
It comes in a zip file, which when you open you'll need to find and open the "index.htm" file. Now browse away and see what Facebook knows about you!
One point to be careful about is how you look after this file, as it contains a lot of information about you. Bear in mind that your data may be less secure on your computer than it is on Facebook's servers! Perhaps think about reviewing your data and then deleting the file once you've finished with it - or review it on Facebook instead using the "Access Your Information" link (see screenshot).