Your data worth money!
Facebook is storing a few metric tons of information about all of us, called marketing data. I sometimes wonder exactly what intel, and how they collect it, but as the common knowledge goes: it’s the price of our comfortably reachable pool of friends and the windows constantly opened into each other’s lives. We have learned to live with it, it’s our shiny new paradigm: most services on a certain level are reachable for free.
Except, that it’s a white lie, there’s still no free dinner.
Imaginable though, that we keep this truth in mind while harvesting the forbidden fruits of other people’s hard work through using “free” services online or on our smartphones. Still, it was kind of shocking for me to realize, that the guys at Facebook aren’t satisfied with the records of my likes and saves and comments dating back as far as 2007. They are purchasing more data about us from third-party sources. These sources are commercial data brokers, and they sell what Facebook doesn’t and cannot gather with its diligent little algorithms: our offline data. Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy states that the company is profiling us like police do with criminals, or secret agencies with spies.
“Facebook is bundling a dozen different data companies to target an individual customer, and an individual should have access to that bundle as well.”
This “bundling” means neatly organized dossiers about each and every one of us on the site, and Facebook has about 1,79 billion daily active members. They even have an official excuse for not telling you about this “Cataloging The Folks Program” of theirs: the third-party data isn’t collected by them, and it’s also widely available.
Crowdsourcing some intelligence
ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom, has recently conducted a survey, asking its readers to share their experiences. They developed a Chrome browser plugin, which gathers the “categories of interest” that Facebook has assigned to them. You can install the plugin to your Chrome browser, and check your very own Facebook tag cloud. And when you had enough time face-to-face with your habitual imprint, you can browse the vast catalog of human activities in the Ads Data File, Propublica.org collected from Facebook, that’s downloadable here. Be prepared, you will need to unzip it, so you might need Winzip.
Readers of ProPublica shared 52,235 (!) categories, like: “Pretending to Text in Awkward Situations” or “Breastfeeding in Public” that Facebook has used to catalog them. This, in some cases, wouldn’t bother anyone, but they found some pretty sensitive categories too, such as “Ethnic Affinity” which categorizes people based on their affinity for African-Americans, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups. Facebook provides these results for its advertisers who can target ads toward a group, or exclude ads from being shown to a particular group.
Politically incorrect advertising
In November 2016, ProPublica could buy a Facebook ad in housing categories that excluded African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans. After writing about it, Facebook said it would build an automated system to help it spot ads that illegally discriminate.
There are other ways to see more clearly, however. Facebook provides categories to ad buyers too, all you have to do is buy an ad. ProPublica has found 29,000 categories this way, of which nearly 600 categories were described as being provided by third-party data brokers. The categories included financial aspects, such as “total liquid investible assets $1-$24,999,” “People in households that have an estimated household income of between $100K and $125K,” or even “Individuals that are frequent transactor at lower cost department or dollar stores.”
And here comes the $64,000 question: Do the official data broker categories match the crowd-sourced list of what Facebook tells users about themselves? No, it doesn’t. The gathered information is simply missing from the 29,000 “interests” that Facebook showed users.
But you’re looking for your 17 point to-do list, all right?
Maybe it’s time to meet Steve Satterfield, who is a Facebook manager of privacy and public policy. Steve has important advice for you if you’ve already reached the point of “wanting to exit the joyride.”
You should contact the data brokers directly. There is a page in Facebook’s help center that provides links to the opt-outs for six data brokers in multiple regions that sell personal data to Facebook. Of course, you have to manually email each one of them with a custom email requesting the deletion of your collected data, but only after you’ve dug out the proper mail address from several dozen pages of legal mumbo-jumbo. Instead of a simple form to handle this. Let’s just say, they are not going to make this easy for us. You can begin the process by visiting the page here.
Here you will find the list of existing data contractors by regions, and there are 17 of them. I suggest that you save the link, because there are literally hundreds of other actors on the data-market, and this list changes regularly without prior notice to Facebook users.
- Acxiom: http://acxiom.de/datenschutz/
- United Kingdom
- Acxiom: http://www.acxiom.co.uk/about-acxiom/privacy/uk-privacy-policy/
- Experian: http://www.experian.com/privacy/opting_out.html
- Oracle Data Cloud: http://eu.datalogix.com/uk-privacy/
- United States
- Acxiom: https://isapps.acxiom.com/optout/optout.aspx
- Epsilon: http://www.epsilon.com/consumer-preference-center
- Experian: http://www.experian.com/privacy/opting_out.html
- Oracle Data Cloud: https://www.datalogix.com/privacy/
- TransUnion: https://www.transunion.com/customer-support/marketing-offers-opt-out
- WPP: https://www.i-behavior.com/opt-out/
If you have made the decision, and plan to opt out from all 17, prepare yourself for a long process full of research, and obstacles, amounting I’d say to several days of working time! All of the data-brokers above require you to send a copy of government-issued identification to verify your identity. They encourage the users to physically mail inquiries, maybe knowing that such options discourage the majority – we aren’t living in the twentieth century after all.
An old school Oracle
Oracle for example – hiding behind the brand Datalogix or Bluekai – elongates the process, by reasoning: “…complex requests may take more research and time. In such cases, you will be contacted regarding the nature of the request and appropriate next steps within thirty days from the date of receipt of the request.” They also avert responsibility: “We cannot provide information that is collected and controlled solely by our customers. If you have questions in regards to the privacy practices of our customers, Oracle recommends that you contact that customer directly.”
And preferably contact them by physically mailing them an inquiry. It could only be more shameless if they asked for it to be folded by certain XVII century patterns, written on handmade paper and delivered via a horse-drawn carriage. By the way, Oracle delivers approximately 350 types of data to Facebook. For you, on the other hand, they have a so-called opt-out cookie, which you should put in the proper place in your browser, and voila: 20 years of exclusion from Oracles intrusion! If you know where to put it, and how to keep it there. And that’s just one of the data broker companies, you can expect the same overcomplicated progress-slowing approach from each and every one of them.
Reporter Julia Angwin experimented with opting out in 2013. She identified 212 data brokers of which only 92, less than half of them, accepted opt-outs, and of which 65 asked for a form of identification such as a driver’s license. 24 of those 65 accepted only physical mail or fax! In the end, she could not remove her data from the majority of providers.
Facebook’s practice of collecting our data from third-party sources dates back to 2012, and it began with Oracle (Datalogix). Jeffrey Chester from the Center for Digital Democracy filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Facebook had violated a consent decree with the agency on privacy issues right from the start. The FTC has never publicly responded to that complaint and Facebook subsequently signed deals with five other data brokers, though they do address other issues and make settlements with Facebook. In this spreadsheet is a list of data brokers who will give you copies of your data, and in this one is the list of data brokers from whom Julia tried to opt-out, with the ones that allowed opt-outs highlighted.
Wait, there is more
Apart from the offline data-brokering, of course, there is online tracking of our actions and the traces that they leave in the databases of social media companies; our browser’s “footprints”; our smartphone’s cell logging information, and the list goes on and on. You can also try to put a stop to it on Chrome and Firefox as well, and this is also very time and energy consuming.