No Free Lunch: What Does Google and Facebook Know About You?

Facebook, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Spotify, all these “free” sites and services aren’t always without cost. In other articles on this blog we talk about how much Google and other companies know about you by tracking what you do online. …but, how much exactly DO they know about you?

Have you ever noticed that Facebook or Google ads seem uncannily related to your own interests? There’s a reason for that. Their advertisers are categorized and pay for premium positioning. For example, with Christmas coming up, New Line Cinema would pay Facebook a higher rate to drop ads for their Hobbit box set on the Facebook pages of anyone who included The Hobbit in their list of favourite movies. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.


Google builds a profile of each of its users. Google collects the data from various sources it controls, such as its search engine, Gmail, YouTube, GoogleDocs, Google+ and Maps. Once you’re loggged into your Google account, the data collecting begins.

Google uses all the information it can get to do what is referred to as “data mining” – a concept that has been around for some time. An example of data mining is found with store loyalty programs – those point cards that you carry around to eventually earn enough points to save five bucks on a purchase. The cards enable the stores to track your purchases. Data mining comes into play by taking known data and inferring things from it. For example, if your shopping patterns change to where you’re suddenly buying diapers and baby products, the inference is that you have a new family and you may be looking to settle down into a house and move out of your apartment rental, so your name will be placed on a cold-call list for a mortgage broker.

Google can also use this information to target their advertising. If you visit a credit card’s web site, you will instantly see ads for CapitalOne or MasterCard.

This targeting technique ends up creating what is called the “filter bubble” that shows up in both ads and search results served up from Google. For example, if Google’s profile has you pegged as a Liberal, and you search for “Barack Obama” you will get results that are largely friendly to the President. If Google has decided that you’re a Fox News viewer, you’ll get all the conspiracy theory stories and nonsense up front in your search results. What should be an open source of information becomes an echo chamber as the more information Google collects, the narrower your view of the Internet becomes.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, Google will happily show you what kind of information it has on you:

You can see how Google targets their ads toward your browsing experience here:
Google also keeps a record of everything you’ve ever searched for. …Yes, everything. To see what Google has on record for your search terms,
Many Android mobile devices send GPS information such as location, direction and speed of travel and so on. All of this is recorded as well. To see what Google has recorded for your previous locations,
Google also records data about every device that is used to access your Google account and you can see what Google has on your whereabouts here;
Many apps and browser extensions can access your data. To see a list of all the apps that can access your own data and change their security settings here:
If you wanted to collect all that Google has collected about you, will produce that report for you.
Google’s tracking and data storage is why we recommend search engines like Ixquick or DuckDuckGo 


Facebook is making an estimated $10 billion a year off of its users’ personal information. What, you think they did this for free? In just the 2nd fiscal quarter of 2014 they made $2.8 billion.
So what does Facebook know about you?
In a nutshell, everything. Like Google, Facebook creates a profile on each and every one of its users, but unlike Google, its profiles aren’t based on educated guesses and extrapolation techniques. YOU tell it everything.
When you filled out your profile, you gave Facebook data like your favourite books, bands, movies, the high school you attended, all kinds of information used to build better predictive models and networks for more precise targeted content. This info also makes for better building blocks for creating a more narrow and impervious “filter bubble“. 
How can I find out what data Facebook has collected?
  1. In Facebook, click on the “padlock” icon and select “See More Settings” at the bottom of the list.
  2. Select the “General” settings.
  3. Click on the “Download a copy of your Facebook data” link at the bottom of the screen.
  4. You will be taken to a new screen, click the “Start My Archive” button to download a Zip file that contains all of the data that Facebook has collected. You will be asked for your Facebook password in order to begin the download.
What can I expect to find in the Zip file? Here’s the list where Facebook freely tells you what information they’re collecting:
  • Any information you added to the About section of your Timeline like relationships, work, education, where you live and more. It includes any updates or changes you made in the past and what is currently in the About section of your Timeline.
  • Account Status History – The dates when your account was reactivated, deactivated, disabled or deleted.
  • Active Sessions – All stored active sessions, including date, time, device, IP address, machine cookie and browser information.
  • Ads Clicked – Dates, times and titles of ads clicked (limited retention period).
  • Address – Your current address or any past addresses you had on your account.
  • Ad Topics – A list of topics that you may be targeted against based on your stated likes, interests and other data you put in your Timeline.
  • Alternate Name – Any alternate names you have on your account (ex: a maiden name or a nickname).
  • Apps – All of the apps you have added.
  • Birthday Visibility – How your birthday appears on your Timeline.
  • Chat – A history of the conversations you’ve had on Facebook Chat (a complete history is available directly from your messages inbox).
  • Check-ins – The places you’ve checked into.
  • Connections – The people who have liked your Page or Place, RSVPed to your event, installed your app or checked in to your advertised place within 24 hours of viewing or clicking on an ad or Sponsored Story.
  • Credit Cards – If you make purchases on Facebook (ex: in apps) and have given Facebook your credit card number.
  • Currency – Your preferred currency on Facebook. If you use Facebook Payments, this will be used to display prices and charge your credit cards.
  • Current City – The city you added to the About section of your Timeline.
  • Date of Birth – The date you added to Birthday in the About section of your Timeline.
  • Deleted Friends – People you’ve removed as friends.
  • Education – Any information you added to Education field in the About section of your Timeline.
  • Emails – Email addresses added to your account (even those you may have removed).
  • Events – Events you’ve joined or been invited to.
  • Facial Recognition Data – A unique number based on a comparison of the photos you’re tagged in. We use this data to help others tag you in photos.
  • Family – Friends you’ve indicated are family members.
  • Favorite Quotes – Information you’ve added to the Favorite Quotes section of the About section of your Timeline.
  • Followers – A list of people who follow you.
  • Following – A list of people you follow.
  • Friend Requests – Pending sent and received friend requests.
  • Friends – A list of your friends.
  • Gender – The gender you added to the About section of your Timeline.
  • Groups – A list of groups you belong to on Facebook.
  • Hidden from News Feed – Any friends, apps or pages you’ve hidden from your News Feed.
  • Hometown – The place you added to hometown in the About section of your Timeline.
  • IP Addresses – A list of IP addresses where you’ve logged into your Facebook account (won’t include all historical IP addresses as they are deleted according to a retention schedule).
  • Last Location – The last location associated with an update.
  • Likes on Others’ Posts – Posts, photos or other content you’ve liked.
  • Likes on Your Posts from others – Likes on your own posts, photos or other content.
  • Likes on Other Sites – Likes you’ve made on sites off of Facebook.
  • Linked Accounts – A list of the accounts you’ve linked to your Facebook account.
  • Locale – The language you’ve selected to use Facebook in.
  • Logins – IP address, date and time associated with logins to your Facebook account.
  • Logouts – IP address, date and time associated with logouts from your Facebook account.
  • Messages – Messages you’ve sent and received on Facebook. Note, if you’ve deleted a message it won’t be included in your download as it has been deleted from your account.
  • Name – The name on your Facebook account.
  • Name Changes – Any changes you’ve made to the original name you used when you signed up for Facebook.
  • Networks – Networks (affiliations with schools or workplaces) that you belong to on Facebook.
  • Notes – Any notes you’ve written and published to your account.
  • Notification Settings – A list of all your notification preferences and whether you have email and text enabled or disabled for each.
  • Pages You Admin – A list of pages you admin.
  • Pending Friend Requests – Pending sent and received friend requests.
  • Phone Numbers – Mobile phone numbers you’ve added to your account, including verified mobile numbers you’ve added for security purposes.
  • Photos – Photos you’ve uploaded to your account.
  • Photos Metadata – Any metadata that is transmitted with your uploaded photos. (this includes things like geostamps)
  • Physical Tokens – Badges you’ve added to your account.
  • Pokes – A list of who’s poked you and who you’ve poked. Poke content from our mobile poke app is not included because it’s only available for a brief period of time. After the recipient has viewed the content it’s permanently deleted from our systems.
  • Political Views – Any information you added to Political Views in the About section of Timeline.
  • Posts by You – Anything you posted to your own Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates.
  • Posts by Others – Anything posted to your Timeline by someone else, like wall posts or links shared on your Timeline by friends.
  • Posts to Others – Anything you posted to someone else’s Timeline, like photos, videos and status updates.
  • Privacy Settings – Your privacy settings.
  • Recent Activities – Actions you’ve taken and interactions you’ve recently had.
  • Registration Date – The date you joined Facebook.
  • Religious Views – The current information you added to Religious Views in the About section of your Timeline. – Removed Friends – People you’ve removed as friends.
  • Screen Names – The screen names you’ve added to your account, and the service they’re associated with. You can also see if they’re hidden or visible on your account.
  • Searches – Searches you’ve made on Facebook.
  • Shares – Content (ex: a news article) you’ve shared with others on Facebook using the Share button or link.
  • Spoken Languages – The languages you added to Spoken Languages in the About section of your Timeline.
  • Status Updates – Any status updates you’ve posted.
  • Work – Any current information you’ve added to Work in the About section of your Timeline.
  • Vanity URL – Your Facebook URL (ex: username or vanity for your account).
  • Videos – Videos you’ve posted to your Timeline.
Here’s the page where Facebook tells you what it collects:
What is the significance of some of this data? Well, let’s take two fairly innocuous pieces of data – your Family, and Photos. In “Family” you’ve probably identified your mother, or probably some cousins. From this information someone can easily discover your mother’s maiden name. In your pictures, you probably have a photo album that includes pictures of your pets. What are two very common security questions that people set up as their test question for when they forget a password to something? What is your mother’s maiden name, and What is the name of your first pet.

Here’s another security risk, and this one’s a little more direct. By collecting your login and logoff times, a profile can be assembled of when you’re most likely to be online – for a hacker, this means when you’re most vulnerable to an attack.
You can see the problem this might create. Other ways this data can be used is if a company or lobbyist group or government wants to target a group – let’s say everyone who has more than three links to marijuana legalization groups or pages. You may get added to someone’s watch list. Or let’s say something a little more sinister, like you suddenly switch your Facebook religious affiliation to Muslim from Christian and start frequently searching for airline seat sales to Syria, you might start pinging on someone’s radar.
That’s a lot of data, though. How would one sort through it all? Luckily, Facebook provides you with a tool that allows you to search and sort your own data. It’s a feature called “Graph Search” that is the public face of the data mining tool that Facebook uses to provide its clients with the data they’re looking for.
Right-clicking the ad’s top right corner gives
access to some customization tools.
So, how do you prevent targeted ads and bubbled content? The most effective thing to do is not to volunteer a lot of information about yourself. Everything that you enter ends up tailoring your experience to some extent. Another way is to familiarize yourself with Facebook’s customization and privacy options. These change so frequently that it’s not practical to offer a step-by-step guide here as it will likely be out of date a few days after publishing. Currently, by right-clicking on the top corner of an ad, or on the down-arrow if it appears in your news feed, presents a link that will allow you to customize the ads that you see. Clicking on an item in your news feed allows you to take a survey to make the News Feed better. And by “better” they mean “more targeted”. Switch from Facebook to Ello. I’m sure that Ello will still sell client data, but the “filter bubble” effect will be far less prevalent. Other than that, stop using Google as a search engine. Use search engines like Ixquick or DuckDuckGo instead.

Here’s the ironic thing, though. Neither Google nor Facebook invaded your privacy. All the information that Google and Facebook tells you it has on you, you gave it away willingly. Be careful about what you do online. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

More resources:

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