Is Facebook spying on me?

Large tech companies have frequently been embroiled in scandals over recent years due to the amount of data they have been harnessing on individuals without giving fair warning. Facebook has had a particular problem in this regard, not least because of the company's propensity to take over other companies which had been storing personal data. This issue flared up again in early 2021 when WhatsApp (which had recently been acquired by Facebook) attempted to update its privacy policy, prompting millions to leave the app for good.

This issue relates strongly to two sections of the Web Safety Guru computer safety tuition, the section on protecting your privacy and the section on social media.

Disclaimer. When writing about very specific technology or practices, an article can become out of date quickly. A technology might be replaced or a particular practice may be made illegal. However, based on the 'ethics' of Facebook and its 'creator' Mark Zuckerberg, it's safe to say the simple answer is yes, Facebook does spy on you and this is likely to remain true in future. Only the precise method will have changed.


is Facebook spying on me?

How does Facebook spy on me?

1. Moving the goalposts

Changing the Terms and Conditions

One of the most insidious ways Facebook spies on you legally is by subtly changing its terms and conditions without drawing attention to the Fact. Let's be honest, we all tick that box which says we accept the T's & C's without bothering to check what's in them. Fortunately there are diligent checkers out there who'll flag up if something particularly unpleasant is going on, for example the WhatsApp privacy changes that were announced in early 2021. Among the better reporters of infringements are Which and DuckDuckGo and it is worth following them on social media if you want an authoritative take on such matters.

Changing the default privacy settings

Closely related to this, is changing the default settings. Permissions that were previously switched off by default are suddenly enabled in an update and you have to physically disable them. Examples of this include who can see certain posts. In 2018 this change made the privacy settings of 14 million people change to public without warning. This article from August 2021 details a recent Facebook attempt to make the privacy settings harder to find.

2. Personal information harvested on Facebook, by Facebook

Facebook knows an incredible amount about you, I'll talk about this in depth in the Social Media Masterclass course. For a brief and up to date summary, check out this article from September 2021 which explains how you can find out what Facebook knows. Chillingly this includes what is known as Off-Facebook Activity, and I'll discuss this in the next section.

3. Partnerships with other software - AKA Off-Facebook Activity

3a. Facebook owned software

This happens depressingly often. A tech giant takes over a useful piece of software and integrates it into its own system. Recent Facebook examples include Instagram and WhatsApp. Facebook doesn't just take the profits from these ventures, it takes the personal data as well. In the case of WhatsApp, Facebook takes the contact details, but not the specifics of any SMS conversations as these are encrypted. In a nutshell, Facebook finds out who you are friends with, even if you are not friends on Facebook, and it knows when you message them.

3b. Non-Facebook owned software.

Have you ever selected the "Sign in using Facebook" option on another site? This may be convenient but your are enabling Facebook to learn an awful lot about you as it can track your activity on the third party site. There are security downsides to this option too. This article dates from 2018 but the principles are still entirely relevant.


Facebook thumbs down

What can I do about Facebook spying on me?

Apart from the nuclear option of deleting your account there are certain actions you can take to minimise Facebook's stranglehold.
  • Use Facebook on a separate browser to everything else you do. This helps because cookies are held at the browser level.
  • Where you create an account for a new site, resist the temptation to connect your Facebook account to it. You'll see plenty of sites that offer a "Login using Facebook" option. This sounds convenient, not least because you are reducing the number of passwords you have to remember. But you are giving Facebook the permission to track your activity on that account.
  • Use alternatives to products which are married to Facebook. For example ditch WhatsApp and move to Telegram or Signal.


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