Currently there are 270 million Facebook accounts in India, and if you are reading this, chances are you are one of them. At this point, it is unnecessary to explain what it is and how it works. But it is important to know what it has become.
Facebook was a small social media site built by Mark Zuckerberg in Harvard University. But that was in 2003. In these past 17 years, It has seen a meteoric rise in their user base, which in turn led the company to have a monopoly over social media. Now it is the go-to place for connecting with strangers. But I would not be writing this if Facebook was just a social media network. With 2.1 billion Facebook users, the company has built several services under the flag of Facebook, which are not individual services but embedded in the social media network. Technically, you can install a single app, i.e. Facebook, and access all the things you need.
More engagement matters more
First, let us list the services you access with your smartphone or computer. You check your weather, manage your calendar, watch videos, play games, sell or buy stuff, look for a job, check out a restaurant, check movie times, put an ad for your business and many more. For all the services I mentioned, Facebook has an option for each one of them; and not only that, it has fundraiser, crisis response too. Moreover, if you are not a person who is fond of technology, you may not know that Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp. So even if you do not have a Facebook account, you may be using one of their services.
Your Data is Valuable to Facebook
Now the question is, why does it offer so many things even when there are better options? The answer is – Data. Have you ever wondered why Facebook, Google and other internet services are free? If you have, then you may have found out that those companies serve ads and the advertisers pay them. But things are rarely that simple. You are paying for their services, but it is not a monetary payment. You are paying them with your data.
‘Data’ is meaningless to an average person. Whenever I tell someone about this, the most common argument I hear is “I have nothing to hide, I do not take private photos, and I am not a criminal, why should I care about that stuff?”. The funny thing about this is that these are valuable to you, not to the companies. They care about your habit, what you like, what you dislike.
Has it ever happened to you that you search something on the web, and 5 minutes later, you see an ad about that on your Facebook feed? Or, you see an ad about something you were discussing verbally with your friends? You must have wondered; how does this happen? Is it listening through my phone? Well, no. They have an acute knowledge of your behavior and can predict your actions so accurately that it seems they are listening to your conversations. This is what is valuable to the companies, your behavioral data. Are you fine with that?
Imagine you go for shopping, you buy stuff from a specific store every time. Now you see someone from the store following you, silently, everywhere you go. Is that not creepy? This is what is happening, except you do not see someone following physically.
But why data?
You may ask, why do the companies need this data for serving ads? They can just serve ads without this data. Well, yes, they can, but you will not click on it. Let’s say you are planning to buy a smartphone. You look for some options and later go back to scrolling your feed. Now you see two ads; one is about a laptop, and the other one is about a smartphone, which one will you click? The answer is obvious. If you click on ads, the advertisers will invest more in putting up ads on the platform, so if that platform shows you relevant ads, you will click more. That is why the companies need to know what you like and what you want.
Facebook engages you more & More
If Facebook wants you to click on more ads, they need you to spend more time on their platform, they need you to engage. That is why Facebook has so many ‘services’, their goal is to provide you everything so that you do not need to leave the app.
The most engaging feature is hiding in plain sight – Instant Gratification.
I would talk more about instant gratification, but this is not a philosophical website. In simple terms, more likes give you instant gratification, as if someone is praising you for your post. The ‘notification’ is your queue to get started on Facebook. That little ‘ting’ sound keeps you using the website, though this is not exclusive to Facebook alone, the notification sound on your phone is annoying and at the same time, wanted. Once you get those likes and comments, your brain starts releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone that makes us happy, motivates us etc, basically this hormone plays a part in a person’s emotional responses. So, you lean more and more towards instant gratification which in return releases more and more dopamine in your brain. This acts as a positive feedback loop and you get more addicted to likes and comments on social media and slowly procrastinate from your long-term goals. But this is a topic for another day.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp and Instagram in 2014 and 2012 respectively. This gave Facebook more control of their users’ lives. Instagram has become the standard for sharing photos online, and WhatsApp is arguably the most preferred massaging app in the world. Facebook can have your list of contacts through WhatsApp and suggest you friends in your contacts on Facebook in case you missed them.
Where are we headed?
Facebook is this ever-growing tech company, slowly taking over your data and silently controlling your life. Facebook bought the companies it could and created alternatives to its competitors. But why stop there? Facebook recently bought ‘CTRL-Labs’, a company that mainly focuses on neural interface technology and human computer interaction. Maybe it wants to develop some technology for users to control devices with brain and in return you provide your neural data. Facebook has also invested in augmented reality or AR, so that you can see more of your online stuff floating around the real world, and I assume it is going to be targeted ads.
After all this, the question arises, can you have your privacy and use Facebook? The answer is ‘No’. Facebook tracks people all over the internet. If a website has a ‘like’ or ‘share on Facebook’ option, Facebook can track you there, even if you do not have an account. And the scary part is, your data is not safe on the Facebook servers. In recent years, scandals like Cambridge Analytica has revealed that Facebook is careless with its users’ data. So, you are not only exposed to targeted ads, but also your data is vulnerable to third parties.
Take control of your data
You may ask, “What should I do?”. The obvious answer is leave Facebook altogether. You can delete your Facebook account following the guide here. If that is not possible, then reduce the time you spend on Facebook. But apart from that, you can go to the settings and tweak some options in the Ads sections. I am going to walk you through the process.
Go to your Facebook settings and head over to the ‘Security and login’ section. There, you can see ‘Where you’re logged in’. Go through the devices and look for unknown devices. If you see any unknown device, immediately logout of that device and change your password. An unknown device is an indication that your account might have been hacked. You can change your password in the ‘Login’ section below ‘Where you’re logged in’. If you want extra security on your account, which is always recommended, turn on Two faction authentications on your account. (You can learn more about two factor authentication here). You can do that in ‘Two-factor authentication’ right below the ‘Login’ section. Below that, you will see ‘Setting up extra security’, where you can, and will, turn on alerts about unrecognized logins. These settings will not reduce your ad tracking, these are security for your Facebook account.
Now head over to the main settings page, and look for ‘Your Facebook information’, you should find that right below ‘Security and login’. In that section, look for ‘Off-Facebook activity’. I am not going to an in-depth explanation of what it is; Facebook has that information displayed in simple terms. But basically, when you visit something on the web, let’s say you visit a clothing site, that information is sent to Facebook, and then Facebook shows you ads on clothing brands or products. So, turn that off, and clear history. After that, you will see ‘Manage Future Activity’. Go there and turn off ‘Future off-Facebook activity’.
Return to the main settings page and look for ‘Privacy’, right below ‘Your Facebook information’. You can tweak the settings her according to your own taste, these settings have no relation with data collection.
In the main settings page, there is a section – ‘Location’. Just go there and turn off location history.
Go back to the main settings page and look for ‘Face recognition’. This feature allows Facebook to recognise you in photos and videos. You should turn that off. This way, Facebook should not actively look for your faces all over the site.
At the time of the writing, the ‘Ad’ section in Facebook setting is not available through the settings page, so follow this link to visit the Facebook ad preference page. In that page, look for ‘Ad settings”. There will be three toggles – ‘Ads based on data from partners’, ‘Ads based on your activity on Facebook Company Products that you see elsewhere’. Set them to ‘not allowed’. Then you will see ‘Ads that include your social actions’, set that to ‘No one’.
Now head back to the main settings page and look for ‘Apps and websites’. Go there, and see what apps or websites are connected to your account. Remove any unknown or unused app/website.
Nothing is Perfect
These tweaks will not give you a 100% tracking free experience. These are merely some measures to reduce the ad tracking in Facebook. You Messenger chats are still open for Facebook to access, and you will show ads on your news feed. But you know, some privacy is better than no privacy. And if you can live without Facebook, there is not better option. Because online privacy is much more important than you think.