Friends of mine sometimes accuse me of being unsociable as I tend to steer clear of social media. I used to have a very active Facebook account with around 2,000 friends but a year or so back I found it to be too much of a distraction and deleted it. These days I do have another, virtually dormant, Facebook account with just the one friend, my partner, purely so she can send me messages easily. Apart from that my account is as anonymous as it’s possible to be. The only social media site I really use – and that’s for professional purposes – is LinkedIn.
Of course that doesn’t stop Facebook making constant friend suggestions which I barely register as they’re already friends of hers and I have no intention of adding them. But the other day I noticed among my Facebook recommendations two people who weren’t friends with her; investigating a little deeper I found they were partners of work colleagues. How can that be, I wonder, since there is nothing at all to connect my Facebook account with the office; I’ve never had any of my co-workers as connections and nowhere the name of the company I work for is mentioned. So how does Facebook know we have something in common? I did a bit of digging to see if I could find any clues as to how Facebook tries to connect people.
What Data Does Facebook Collect?
Facebook collects a lot of data about you, possibly more than you realised. From your name and email address when you sign up to everything and everyone you befriend, message, post, like, share and all other interactions on the site including where you live, went to school, worked and any other location based information. There’s also metadata included in photos you upload giving the time it was taken, the location and the type of camera. Whenever you use GPS-based services Facebook can track where you are and use that to determine not only friends and family nearby but also infer how you’re connected to everyone else at the same location. That’s a lot of information about you already but we’re not finished yet: whenever you take a look at someone else’s profile, even if you’re not connected, Facebook will record that action. It gets worse: any web page you visit with Facebook’s code – such as the “Like us on Facebook” or “Share this” options – will also be logged and stored against your profile together with other information relating to your visit. Also any Facebook applications you use on your PC or phone can also be used to gather information about you and your location.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Facebook also mines data from the computer, mobile phone or other devices you use to access it. This can include, when you share the computer with others, the operating system you use, your IP address and other information such as your internet service provider, the type of web browser you use and all the web pages you visit.
These are just the actions you take which Facebook harvests, there are also the actions taken by your friends: tagging you in a photo or a status, making suggestions for friends and pages, posting pictures and links on your profile – I remember someone posting a link to my wall on my old account for a product available from Amazon which I had no interest in, but the next time I went to amazon.co.uk it recommended the same product to me.
Despite what you may think this is not news and it’s all publicly disclosed in Facebook’s data usage policy which you can read at here.
Facebook’s Only Explanation Is Not Relevant
Back to my original question, how does Facebook use all this information to suggest people you may know? It’s a little on the cagey side with explanations and refers only to the contact importer tool: “suggesting that another user add you as a friend because the user imported the same email address as you did, or suggesting that your friend tag you in a picture they have uploaded with you in it” and “To make it easier for your friends to find you, we allow anyone with your contact information (such as email address or telephone number) to find you through the Facebook search bar at the top of most pages, as well as other tools we provide, such as contact importers – even if you have not shared your contact information with them on Facebook.”
Having read that my first thought was it must have suggested them to me through my personal email address as I have the same one registered with LinkedIn and Facebook can search your email contacts if you give it permission to do so. But neither of these people use LinkedIn, I haven’t got their email addresses in my contacts and nobody from work nor connected to work has my personal email address. So that means Facebook’s only explanation is not relevant. Could any of the other ways Facebook collects information on me have been used instead? Not that I can determine. We have nothing in common online; the only commonality is that we both know some people in common but that knowledge does not extend to Facebook or online interaction in any way.
Beyond FB’s User Data Policy
So what are we left with that could possibly lead Facebook to know we might be friends? I think the answer lies in what I’ve already mentioned earlier quoting the data use policy: “…your IP address and other information such as your internet service provider, the type of web browser you use and all the web pages you visit” (my italics). While there’s nothing to suggest we visit the same web pages, what we do have in common is that my home gateway IP address will access my employer’s mail services very frequently to synchronise my inbox, and their home gateway IP address will do the same, plus the community of Facebook users who share this is going to be very limited as I don’t work for a large company.
Attempting to match other Internet services accessed over location-based broadband goes way beyond the Facebook data use policy. If for example I was working remotely on some classified government project could Facebook use their data-mining techniques to find out who else was working on the same project? Or say I was part of a secret criminal organisation using the Internet to connect with others, would Facebook discover this and squeal to the forces of law and order? Notwithstanding the fact that in these two scenarios there are much more secure ways to collaborate and communicate, to me this has the stink of privacy invasion.
It would seem the only thing to do is delete my Facebook profile and so miss out on all the presumably targeted advertising which generates their revenue. The fundamental question to ask would be is Facebook an advertising-funded social media tool or yet another Big Brother spying on you and what you get up to? If the latter is the case it is no wonder, then, that I want to be unsociable online.
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