How Much Data Does Facebook and Advertisers have on You?

Over the last ten years Facebook has gathered too much data and shared far it too widely.  Facebook knows more than you think they know about you, and behind every feature, it is collecting data.  With the latest Cambridge Analytica-Facebook privacy data scandal, I think it’s important for both consumers and businesses to fully understand how Facebook is using and selling your data to advertisers.

These advertisers then target you with ads in an almost “psychically creepy,” stocking way.  Business Insider recently reported about hidden trackers on websites that use 'login with Facebook' to harvest your data. 

A conspiracy theory has been going around among Facebook and Instagram users:  are these two companies maybe tapping our microphones to target ads? According to a statement released by Facebook’s Newsroom, “Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed.”  

And our government swears that there are not any aliens being kept in the secretive base, in Nevada, called Area 51.  

Some of Facebook’s past employees have been quoted saying that scanning and upload that much audio data “would strain the resources of the NSA,” says Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook ad-targeting product manager.

 For this to be possible, “Facebook would need to understand the context of what you are saying - not just listen for the words to mentioned, “ Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager said.

Recently reported by the WSJ, Facebook, has admitted to logging the phone call and messaging histories of some Android smartphone users who installed its messaging app or a lighter version of its main Facebook app.

This followed users’ reports on Twitter in the past week that they had examined their Facebook data and saw the company logging the information.

So, if Facebook and Instagram are really not eavesdropping on conversations, then how is it that users are often shown ads which seem like they these social media sites appear to know too much about them?  

While Facebook’s technologies have become very sophisticated at watching what we do online, and even offline, as we are wandering around the actual world - how do they obtain our personal data if they are not literally listening to our conversations?  

Because of this question, I decided to conduct a bit of research on what information and data Facebook and its advertisers collect, and the data I have handed over to them.  

Based on my research, it now has become abundantly clear as to why we get those eerily relevant ads sometimes -- I will detail my findings below. I also want to touch on how Facebook and other advertisers sometimes “get it wrong” in an almost comically annoying way.  

Just because you’re in your thirties, and you are a woman who bought a baby shower gift, doesn’t mean you need to see ads for maternity clothes every time you open Facebook. When an ad is shown enough to annoy you, you can click the little arrow on the top right corner of the post, then select “Why am I seeing this?” option.


It’s fairly obvious that advertising is a crucial component of the free internet, but the companies that are buying and selling ads appear to be crossing the line in certain cases.  Sometimes, it almost seems like they are stalking you. I think it’s important for companies that are getting started on Facebook advertising, and for users of these platforms, to understand what they’re doing, and what a person can - or cannot - do to limit info if privacy is a concern.

Here are the four major areas where Facebook and advertisers are collecting data and what you can do about it:

1) What you have purchased?

If you shop at pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to buy some medicine, they usually ask you to key in your phone number to get rewards or loyalty points. Many people do this without thinking about it.  When you enter your email, phone number or a customer ID card as you check out at a store, your purchase history is recorded and stored.

In turn, data brokers can legally obtain your purchase information details because they buy that history from stores, like CVS or Walgreens, that sell their customer purchase information.

This is how information about the contents of what you just bought suddenly begins to spread. As an example, a third party collector, such as Nielsen-Catalina Solutions, will compile and categorize purchase history that it acquires from CVS about its customers.  

So, if I bought a bottle of Theraflu, the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK), could pay Nielsen-Catalina Solutions for this information.  When this information is purchased, GlaxoSmithKline is now armed with an enormous arsenal of Facebook’s advertising tools, information from my loyalty cards, email or phone number and more.  

Using all this data, GlaxoSmithKline can match their advertising with my Facebook account. Now according Facebook, data brokers run personal information through an algorithm before uploading it, so that it’s not identifiable, but it can still be matched with Facebook account information.  

So then continuing with this example, GSK, via Facebook, can decide to target adults between the ages of 25 to 54, who purchased Theraflu or a competing brand.   

How to Opt Out of Data Gathering

Follow the links below for instructions to stop tracking by the largest data brokers:

For starters, if you want to limit the amount information that is sold and used by advertising, try using store loyalty cards, or at least sign up for them with an email or phone you do not use.   

Facebook works directly with the six data brokers listed above, all of which give you the opportunity to opt out of them sharing of your personal data, from your email to your purchase history.  Of course, this is not easy, by design. The “opting out” process literally requires visiting each data broker website and completing a form with, yes, your personal info!

2) Where have you and your devices been?

For advertisers, what could be better than your purchase history? That answer can be found in the famous phrase: location, location, location.  Did you stop at a retail store? This ad will remind you to return! Are you in close vicinity to one of our shops? Well, here is a coupon.    

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, called “Your Location Data Is Being Sold—Often Without Your Knowledge” the author, describes how advertisers are using all kinds of location signals.  Which include your smartphone’s GPS, Wifi-access points around you, IP addresses and more to follow your breadcrumbs.

Do you want to limit Facebook from knowing where you are?  To do so, follow these steps in Facebook’s mobile app (IOS and Android):

Settings > Account Settings > Location and turn off location tracking.

For increased security, you can disable location history as well prevent the social network from keeping tabs on your whereabouts.  It does not stop from there.  Other apps can pinpoint your locale and serve you ads back through Facebook.

So, before granting any new app location access, think it through.  On an iPhone, you can do the following: Settings > Privacy > Location Services and go through the apps that you have already granted location access. If you are concerned with turning this kind of tracking?  They should all say “Never” or “While Using” - not “Always.” If you have an Android, it’s easier: just go to Settings > Location.

Additionally, businesses can opt-in to provide wifi access or just monitor devices in their establishment and then be paid by the number of devices that use their network or are trapped in their beacon.  An example of this is a local hot dog restaurant, who stated conversationally to the CEO of a small marketing firm that he was getting monthly checks from a company that had installed a tracker for mobile devices in his restaurant, and there was nothing he needed to do besides give permission for the tracker to be there.

3) Which apps do you use regularly?  

Let’s assume you are thinking about keeping in shape- Summer will be here soon enough. So, you go into the iTunes App Store and download a food-tracking app to your iPhone. The next day you may see your Facebook and Instagram feed flooded with fitness and weight loss ads. If it was already obvious, the Facebook-owned Instagram pulls from the same ad selection.   

How it usually works with these apps is that you initially download and use a free version of an app. Let’s use the example of a food tracking app called Lose lt.  

You will be shown ads from Facebook’s Audience Network. Now, even if you do not login to the app via Facebook, the companies swap information.  Usually the app’s maker or parent company can use your iPhone’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA). The IDFA is a number stored on your phone, to match up any other history associated with your  IDFA, which also includes your Facebook account.

Again if you want to limit this, go into your iPhone’s Settings menu.  It is there where you can actually limit the ability for advertisers to get a hold of your iPhone’s unique identifier.  

Keeping with the same food tracking app example, if you open the app, your IDFA could become associated with “Weight Loss” or even “Healthy Living” which would now be marked on your Facebook advertising profile.     

Apple gives you the ability to limit advertisers from getting your IDFA. In iOS go to Settings > Privacy > Advertising > turn on Limit Ad Tracking.  At the time you should reset the advertising identifier. With Android’s similar system, just go to Settings > Google > Ads > Opt out of Ads Personalization.  

4) What have you clicked or visited?    


Obviously,  web browsing history is another way that Facebook mines and collects information about you. The ‘social plug-ins’ (for example, the ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ buttons) and the Facebook Pixel is installed on millions of apps and websites.  Facebook Pixel allows advertisers to see what you do on there.

Often referred to as re-marketing or social retargeting, it’s when you see an ad for Vineyard Vines dress shirts after browsing for them.  Add something to a shopping cart? Click on a different product or article on the site. The Pixel will know.         

If you find it annoying that ads are following you around, you can have some options.  One option is called interest-based advertising. It is pretty common and is used across the web by the big tech platforms.  Google, Amazon, Facebook and others offer ways to opt out on their own websites.

Specifically, on Facebook, you can go to Settings > Account Settings > Ads > Ad Settings and turn off all the settings on that page. If you want to take it a step further, you can delete any interests Facebook may have gathered about you previously. If you want to prevent the same when you are your Laptop, install the extensions Ghostery or Privacy Badger  on your browser.  

Both of these to view and disable - trackers that are running on webpages. The Firefox browser just made a smart play: by creating a Facebook Container Extension. that helps you control more of your web activity by separating your Facebook profile from the rest of your web-browsing to limit the info FaceBook can collect about you on other websites via third party cookies.   

Who are you really?  

All that information, combined with your activity on Facebook, as well as Instagram - which post or pages you’ve liked, the people you are friends with and more- give the social media behemoth a very good social graph portrait of you.  This portrait gets even more clear when more information from the data brokers: your salary, car preference, home size, political affiliations, spending habits and much more is revealed.  


This is why, just behind Google, Facebook commands the second most digital advertising spend. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.  That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

This is what allows any advertiser to log into Facebook Ads Manager and perform micro-targeting. You can try it for yourself, log in and laser focus on people in a certain zip code who have bought appliances and furniture- people who are “likely to move soon.”   

Now short of deleting Facebook entirely and moving into the woods, there is not anything you can do stop this entirely.    

Some people can argue that having all this data means that they can provide you with more relevant ads. And some people care more than others about their privacy and personal information being used.

 Facebook’s spokesperson Joe Osborne says: “That’s why we build our targeting tools in a way that doesn’t share people’s personal information with advertisers and that gives people control over the ads they see.” But, if we circle back to the latest Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where millions users information was used without their knowledge for political gain, you have to wonder.

How much do you trust Facebook and what their PR team says? Facebook had already settled a case with the FTC in 2011 that required Facebook to protect user data from this sort of thing, AND obtain permission from (and notify) users before using or sharing their data.   

Facebook is doing what it always set out to do: collect our data points and sell them to anyone willing to pay. Do you actually think Goldman Sachs and DST Global (a Russian investor with Kremlin ties) chipped in $450 million so we can post cat videos and pictures of our food for free?   

The goal of connecting the world is just marketing, and to do that, you must understand that the value of Facebook is two-fold, that of your data to third parties and to the direct ads that are targeted to you.  In addition, this could also include the dimension of your friends, who have not signed up for the ads that are focused on you, but of people in your social circle who may have similar tastes to you. Just assume that if it’s a free app, you, and your social circle, are the product.


As a cofounder of a digital marketing agency, I understand that advertising has been what has financed radio, TV and free content on the internet. Whenever you sign up for a free service, which has been designed to be easy to use, with terms and conditions discreetly listed in inconspicuous text somewhere on the bottom of the page, you are the product or target.

My concern is that the public still does not have enough transparency about how exactly these digital ads are targeted toward us.  

The more that consumers understand about the linkage between smartphones, browsing history, location history and data that can now be aggregated with demographic information provided from you to Facebook, the more this targeting will make sense. It’s not that “they” are listening to your conversations through your computer’s microphone, but data aggregation.

“They” (marketers) are monitoring users app downloads and daily trips to Wholefoods, and know their age and income information in addition to their browsing history, and purchase history.  The more consumers understand this, the more they realize how much their privacy is at stake, and it will be incumbent upon the user to police their own privacy.

Heads up: if you are still worried about the mic on your phone, by all means you can turn it off.  (On iPhone, go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone > Facebook. On Android, go to Settings > Apps > Facebook > Permissions > Disable microphone.  In the iPhone's Settings menu, you can disable the Facebook app from accessing your microphone.   

Facebook is now trying to rebuild it’s trust, by announcing a post in it’s newsroom titled “ It’s Time to Make Our Privacy Tools Easier to Find.”  It also just said that it’s going to limit how much data it makes available to advertisers (by cutting third-party data providers) buying hyper-targeted ads on the social network.

More specifically, Facebook says it will stop using data from third-party data aggregators — companies such as Experian and Acxiom — to help supplement its own data set for ad targeting.   

If the issue is privacy, why does every app and site incentivize users to scroll past pages of legal boilerplate to hit “I Agree,” rather than writing up top in large type:


Facebook’s Privacy Updates

Recently since Mark Zuckerberg CEO, was called in on April 10th and 11, to testify before Congress, FB announced a bunch of changes: restricting access that apps can get about users’ events, as well as information about groups such as member lists and content.

In addition, the company is also removing the option to search for users by entering a phone number or an email address. While this helped individuals find friends who may have a common name, Facebook says businesses that had phone or email information on customers were able to collect profile information this way. 

A few weeks ago all Facebook users will received a notice on their Facebook feeds with a link to see what apps they use and what information they have shared with those apps. They’ll have a chance to delete apps they no longer want. Facebook’s new privacy policy aims to explain the data it gathers on users more clearly — but doesn’t actually change what it collects and shares.