What’s Facebook Doing With Your Data?

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Facebook is no stranger to controversy. Russian groups infamously used the omnipresent social media network to sway American opinions in the 2016 presidential election, and many say that Facebook hasn’t done enough to prevent such tactics from influencing future elections. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has sued Facebook for discriminating in its housing ads. Perhaps of the most everyday concern among Facebook’s many alleged problems is its abundant, incessant data gathering.

To many a Facebook user, it’s unclear how exactly Facebook data collection poses a threat and what data Facebook is even collecting. It can thus be helpful to understand what “data,” in the context of Facebook, means. Data can include location tags on photos that Facebook users post and locations into which they’ve “checked in.” It can also include which links you click on your news feed, not to mention your location when you use its apps. Facebook owns Instagram and WhatsApp, so the tech giant can theoretically access data from these platforms as well.

Due to the breadth of information that Facebook gathers, many have expressed privacy concerns regarding the company’s use of user data. Because Facebook is free to use, the social media network needs to collect data to supply to advertisers, a major source of revenue. Although it may be unrealistic to expect the company to halt its data gathering operations, many have called for the company to be more transparent — and for regulators to be more strict — about its data practices.

The mere gathering of data isn’t how Facebook makes money, nor is it the primary concern of those criticizing the company. Facebook’s selling of user data continues to worry many people, ranging from the users themselves to the data and internet experts who most deeply understand Facebook’s practices. The companies that buy Facebook data use it to craft targeted ad campaigns, and many see this sale of data as a massive breach of privacy.

Users can opt out of certain data-related parts of Facebook, but anyone who uses the platform automatically provides at least some amount of data to the company. For example, users can modify the types of data that Facebook uses to display advertisements to them. Doing so is as simple as heading to Facebook’s settings tool and clicking the Ads subheader. Thereafter, a click on the Ad Preferences and then Ad Setting sections allows users to opt out of both ads generated by partner data and ads encountered elsewhere but generated by Facebook data.

Similarly, users can restrict Facebook’s access to their location data. In the settings menu, the Location subheader leads to a section called Location Access. There, users can either entirely block Facebook’s access to location data or prevent the mobile app from detecting their location even when the app is not running. It’s perhaps this last form of data collection — passive location tracking — that concerns people the most, and Facebook is far from the only app collecting such data. Many apps, though, have begun reversing their collection of this data, and if enough Facebook users act against the company’s more egregious forms of collection, perhaps the social media network will similarly change its course.

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