Facebook has access to an astounding amount of data about its users. As the world‘s largest social media platform with over 2.6 billion monthly active users, Facebook‘s level of surveillance on user behavior and interests is unparalleled.
But not everyone is comfortable having their online activities and personal data tracked so extensively by Facebook.
In this detailed guide, we‘ll cover how Facebook gathers information about you, the powerful tracking tools it uses and actionable steps you can take to minimize Facebook‘s invasive tracking and protect your privacy.
Just How Much Data Does Facebook Collect About You?
Facebook is upfront about using data to improve its advertising services and user experience. But most people are unaware of just how much personal information Facebook can extract.
As you use Facebook, it builds an expansive profile about you based on your activity on the platform itself, other sites and apps you use, information from third-party partners and other sources.
According to Benny Pinkas, Professor of Computer Science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an expert on social media privacy:
"People underestimate how much data they give up to Facebook. A 2019 study found that Facebook has data on nearly a third of humanity. For an average user, Facebook has thousands of data points – pages liked, events attended, search queries made, ads clicked and a never-ending stream from posts, messages and status updates."
Facebook collects all this data using a suite of highly sophisticated tracking tools it has developed. Let‘s examine those tracking methods and technology in more detail.
How Facebook Tracks You On and Off Its Platform
Many users assume Facebook only tracks them while they‘re logged into its platform. But Facebook monitors your activities both on AND off its platform using a variety of methods:
On Facebook Tracking Methods
Cookies – Facebook uses first-party cookies on their domain to identify you across multiple sessions and devices. They link your browsing history to your profile.
Facebook Pixel – Tracking pixel installed on participating sites. Lets Facebook monitor your activity like pages visited, items added to cart etc. Over 8 million websites have the Pixel installed.
Social plugins – The Share and Like buttons on websites allow Facebook to log sites you visit and link this data to your profile. Over 10 million websites have Facebook plugins installed.
Facebook SDK – Developers integrate Facebook‘s software kits into mobile apps to enable tracking of in-app user activity which gets sent back to Facebook.
Device Fingerprinting – The unique configuration of software and hardware on your device acts as a fingerprint. Facebook can use this to identify you without cookies.
Facial Recognition – Facebook may use facial recognition on photos and videos you‘re tagged in to strengthen its identification of you. This is still in limited testing stages.
Analytics Tools – Facebook provides web analytics tools to websites and apps. These also feed back usage data to Facebook.
Your Activity – Every like, share, comment and click gets monitored to gauge your interests and build a behavioral profile for ad targeting.
Off Facebook Tracking Methods
Browser & Device Fingerprinting – As mentioned above, your device and browser configuration allows tracking across sites without cookies.
Location Data – Facebook can access your device‘s location data to track where you go in the real world.
Data Partners – Facebook buys data about users from offline sources like data brokers to further enrich its profiles.
Facebook Business Tools – Tools like Facebook Pixel and SDKs allow Facebook to monitor your activities on third-party sites and apps.
Off-Facebook Activity Tool – An opt-in Facebook tool that explicitly tracks your activities across the internet to enable cross-site ad targeting.
So Facebook doesn‘t just look at what you do on its platform. It works with trackers and partners to monitor and link your activities across websites, apps and devices to serve hyper-targeted promotions.
But why exactly is Facebook building such an encompassing profile about its users?
The Driving Forces Behind Facebook‘s Tracking
At its core, Facebook relies on user data tracking to fuel its $115 billion ad empire. Advertisers spend billions to reach users based on demographics, interests and behavior.
Detailed tracking also enables Facebook to provide personalized content and recommendations to keep you engaged on its platform. The more time you spend, the more data it collects and the more ads it can show you in a self-reinforcing cycle.
But some find Facebook‘s tracking practices too invasive. Data privacy advocates have warned that such excessive data harvesting erodes user privacy and makes their information vulnerable.
"You may get convenience by having appsanticipate your needs and interests. But ultimately, the hidden cost is the loss of privacy and control over your personal data." – Paul Bischoff, Privacy Researcher
Fortunately, users don‘t have to feel powerless against Facebook‘s tracking apparatus. You can take concrete steps to limit how much data Facebook collects about you.
How to Limit Facebook‘s Tracking and Protect Your Privacy
The core premise of Facebook‘s business encourages it to cast the widest tracking net possible. But users don‘t have to resign themselves to being tracked.
Here we cover actionable tips to minimize how much personal data Facebook can monitor and collect about you:
1. Tighten Up Facebook Privacy Settings
Facebook has a number of granular controls that let you limit data tracking:
- Review Apps and Websites – Revoke access of unused apps and limit app permissions
- Restrict Ad Topics – Opt out of sensitive ad topics you don‘t want tracked
- Limit Old Posts – Restrict visibility of your previous posts and profile info
- Location Tracking – Disable location tracking for Facebook app in your phone settings
- Facial Recognition – Opt out of Facebook‘s face recognition feature if you‘re uncomfortable.
- Delete Old Posts and Activity – Regularly clear your Facebook history and activity log to remove cached tracking data.
Actively managing these privacy settings prevents Facebook from accessing as much personal data about you.
2. Use Privacy-Focused Browser Settings
Your web browser provides a lot of information to Facebook that enables tracking. Tweak browser settings to protect your privacy:
- Strict Tracking Protection – Enable tracking protection and anti-cookie features in your browser. Firefox and Safari have robust options.
- Facebook Container – Use the Facebook Container extension to isolate Facebook activity from the rest of your web browsing.
- Private Browsing – Browse Facebook in incognito/private mode to prevent tracking cookies and cache from being stored. Delete cookies frequently.
- DuckDuckGo – Use the privacy-centric DuckDuckGo browser for Facebook instead of Chrome or Safari.
- HTTPS Only – Enable the HTTPS Only mode in your browser to encrypt connections and prevent snooping on your activity.
3. Be Wary of Third-Party Apps Connected to Facebook
When you allow a third-party app or website to connect with your Facebook account, you grant it access to your personal data. Be very selective when approving app permissions and sharing access. Revoke access if unused.
4. Use Tracker Blocking Browser Extensions
- uBlock Origin – Open source ad blocker that also blocks many web trackers like Facebook‘s Pixel tracker.
- Privacy Badger – Built by EFF, Privacy Badger blocks spying ads, widgets and trackers.
- Facebook Disconnect – Browser extension specifically designed to block Facebook tracking services like their tracking Pixel, Like button and more.
5. Monitor Your Ad Preferences
Facebook builds an Ad Profile about you for highly targeted ads. Review this profile to understand what data is being used:
- Go to Settings > Ads > Ad Preferences > Ad Interest to view advertiser lists and topics you‘ve been categorized under based on activity tracking.
- Remove any sensitive or inaccurate interests and demographics here.
6. Turn Off "Off-Facebook Activity" Tracking
This Facebook tool explicitly tracks your activity across devices and sites to target ads. Disable it:
- Go to Settings > Facebook information > Off-Facebook Activity
- Turn off Future Off-Facebook Activity to block this tracking.
7. Use a VPN
Using a VPN like ExpressVPN routes all your traffic through an encrypted tunnel to hide your IP address and physical location. This makes it much harder for Facebook to link your web activities back to you across sites.
8. Disable the Facebook App
The Facebook mobile app has access to a trove of data like contacts, location, messages, camera, storage files and more. Consider disabling the app and only access Facebook from a mobile browser. Limit app permissions before installing the app again.
9. Delete Your Facebook Account
This is the nuclear option – but deleting your Facebook account cuts off all data access and stops tracking completely. You can download your data before deletion. Your public posts and comments may still stay on Facebook servers in a limited form after deletion.
Beyond Limiting Facebook – Develop Good Privacy Habits
Facebook limiting your privacy shouldn‘t make you paranoid. But it should encourage you to be more mindful of how you use social media. Here are some basic habits to stay safe online:
- Think before posting – Don‘t overshare personal or sensitive information publicly online.
- Vet apps before connecting – Only use reputable apps and restrict permissions.
- Use strong unique passwords – Prevent account hijacking. Don‘t reuse passwords.
- Be wary of public Wi-Fi – Don‘t access sensitive accounts or data on unsecured networks.
- Monitor notifications and prompts – Check permissions access when installing apps or enabling new features.
- Review privacy policies – Understand how your data will be used by reading privacy policies for any apps and services you use.
Following basic precautions allows you to comfortably enjoy Facebook and other services, while retaining control over your personal data.
Facebook Tracking and Privacy – Key Takeaways
- Facebook builds expansive user profiles by tracking activities both on and off its platform through tools like cookies, pixels and identifiers.
- This pervasive tracking provides the data backbone that powers Facebook‘s ad targeting systems.
- While Facebook‘s business model incentivizes maximum data collection, users aren‘t powerless.
- You can limit Facebook tracking by using privacy settings, tracker blockers, VPNs, disabling app access and developing good privacy habits.
- With some effort, you can enjoy social media while still maintaining control over your personal information.
FAQs About Facebook Tracking and Privacy
Does Facebook track your web history when you‘re not logged in?
Yes, Facebook uses methods like browser fingerprinting and their ubiquitous trackers on third-party sites to monitor your web activities and link them back to your profile – even when you‘re logged out. Using tools like tracker blockers limits this tracking.
Can Facebook identify you by your typing or writing style?
Facebook training documents leaked in 2021 revealed the company was working on algorithms to identify users by their unique linguistic styles. However, it‘s unclear if this capability has been fully implemented. Facebook does analyze the textual content of your posts and messages to gauge interests and attributes.
Does Facebook still track you if you have no account?
Yes, Facebook builds "shadow profiles" of non-users by tracking their online activities through means like browser fingerprints and Facebook Business Tools embedded on websites. So even if you don‘t have an account, Facebook can still monitor and record your web browsing.
Does Facebook store deleted messages or posts?
When you delete a Facebook post or message, it‘s removed from view. However, deleted data can still be stored in Facebook‘s backups and systems for up to 90 days. So assume any prior posts or messages could be retained by Facebook for a period of time even after deletion.
Can you see everything Facebook knows about you?
Facebook doesn‘t provide users an exhaustive list of all the data it collects about them. You can download some of your info like posts, photos and interests under Settings > Your Facebook Information. But Facebook also derives a lot of behavioral insights it doesn‘t directly reveal, like how you might vote or your religious views.
At the end of the day, Facebook‘s relentless tracking comes down to its business model driven by data collection and analysis. But users now have a heightened awareness of privacy issues.
Armed with the knowledge of how you‘re being tracked by Facebook, you can now take steps to limit the amount of information it collects about you. Using a combination of privacy settings, browser tools and good data hygiene allows you to restrict tracking.
While Facebook provides convenience by anticipating your needs and preferences, ultimately you shouldn‘t have to relinquish total control over your personal data. With this guide‘s tips, you can comfortably enjoy social media while retaining your privacy.