Let’s imagine you have a friend who wants to use your credit card. Your friend tells you that they have strict rules and regulations about how they will use your card, and that you can trust them with this great responsibility. So you agree, with the understanding that if your friend follows all the rules, everything will be fine.
Three weeks later your friend tells you they lost your card—in fact they didn’t just lose it, it’s been lost for a good while now. At this point you might not be friends with this person anymore, let alone trust them with sensitive data. Why do we treat Facebook any differently?
Facebook is like your friend; it’s really great for meeting new people, but sure shouldn’t be trusted with anything valuable. It has lost the personal information of over 87 million people, a quarter of the entire U.S. population (The Guardian, “Facebook to contact 87 million users affected by data breach,” 04.08.2018). No matter what kinds of safeguards it has before it gives your information to advertisers, whether that’s providing only aggregated, anonymized data or metadata, the problem is that it retains a giant pile of user data that it can’t keep safe from bad actors.
What data has Facebook historically collected? Well, to start, your entire call and text history (Ars Technica, “Facebook scraped call, text message data for years from Android phones,” 03.24.2018). Your age, location, political alignment, what websites you visit, facial recognition data and more (New York Times, “What You Don’t Know About How Facebook Uses Your Data,” 04.11.2018). For heaven’s sake, it has over 95 data points with which it can target advertisements, including but not limited to: gender, home value, being away from home, what internet browser or email service you use, number of credit lines and drinking habits (Washington Post, “98 personal data points that Facebook uses to target ads to you,” 08.19.2016). All of this is collected in a big pile somewhere online, just waiting for some bad actor to steal all of it.
Add to the pile: any other information you post to Facebook, but also to its subsidiary company Instagram. That’s right, Instagram is tracking whose photos you’re clicking on, what areas you generally view and when you’re doing all of this (Forbes, “The Amazing Ways Instagram Uses Big Data And Artificial Intelligence,” 03.16.2018). Facebook even collects data on its other subsidiary company, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. Wherever you access the internet, GPS and Bluetooth are all suctioned up into this dangerous pile of modern radioactive waste called “personal data.”
Why should you care whether Facebook has all these data? You, of course, have nothing to hide, right? For one thing, I assume you don’t want your credit card and bank info completely open for anybody to use; “after all, we are not Communists” (“The Godfather,” 1972). If you have no money or credit of which to speak, someone with access to your email and passwords can still ruin your reputation or effectively destroy any career prospects you may have had.
The implications of all of these data really takes a turn for the worse when you consider that during any given year, 14 out of every 1,000 people in the United States are victims of criminal stalking (Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Stalking,” 2019). The treasure-trove of personal data that Facebook collects is the stalker equivalent of the discovery of heavier-than-air flight. Where you are, who you’re with, what events you may attend, all bundled together, all available to someone who might not have your best interest at heart.
This isn’t just a potential threat. Abusers have used personal data—like access to financial and location data—to keep tabs on their victims for years now. With the exceptions of maybe Google and Amazon, nobody has more personal data than Facebook (Journal of Cyber Policy, “Preventing IoT-Based Domestic Violence, Abuse and Stalking,” 07.27.2018 ).
People with marginalized identities are also extremely at risk. Just consider a gay teenager who would be disowned if their parents found out about the teenager’s sexuality. Imagine a young Black man whose family is the victim of hateful death threats or worse because his face was digitally recognized at a Black Lives Matter rally. Or a trans person attacked because their internet searches revealed that they were looking into gender-affirming surgery. Facebook doesn’t have a gold mine, or a vault of treasures: It has a ticking time bomb.
Facebook doesn’t have to collect all these data, either. It chooses to. In effect, there are two types of ads: behavioral, which use large amounts of personal data to try to predict things that people want, and contextual, which offer advertisements relevant to what you are currently viewing. The only reason Facebook collects these data is because it has a fiscal interest in doing so. It makes money.
In fact, this process makes money off of the backs of people like you, who either don’t care or don’t know what to do to stop this. If you still don’t care at this point, then I can’t help you. But for those who just aren’t tech-savvy enough to stymie this tracking, lend me your ear.
First, I recommend you practice regular security hygiene: Use a password manager, enable two factor authentication on your accounts (preferably physical 2FA) and make sure whatever software you use is up to date. Once you’re secure, install anti-tracking extensions on whatever browser you use. Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere from the Electronic Freedom Foundation are a wonderful start, and I also recommend Facebook Container and DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials.
Of course, even if you take all of these prophylactic measures, Facebook will still have any data it has already collected—nothing can change that. The best time to leave Facebook’s ecosystem was before you ever joined.
That being said, the second best time to leave Facebook behind is right now. Delete your account and give up on Facebook. It’s not good for you. We all could have gone the rest of our lives without realizing how racist our dad’s coworkers are, or how good our old crush looks in a sundress. Let Facebook die. It deserves nothing more.