Facebook updated its privacy settings at the end of January. As Facebook turns 11 today, here’s what you need to know about the new settings and how they could affect you.
Happy birthday Facebook! What's new for 2015?
First up - if you’ve been on Facebook since January 30, you’ve already accepted the new terms, whether you knew it or not. Simply logging into Facebook automatically counts you as having accepted the new privacy settings.
The major change in the new policy - which is part of Facebook’s ‘Privacy Basics’ update - is that it allows Facebook to harvest user data from any ‘partner website’ that you’ve browsed, as well as Facebook itself. This could be any site that uses Facebook’s advertising platform, Atlas.
Using data to generate tailored advertising is not new within Facebook, but users will now see this kind of personalization follow them further around the web. Partner sites and apps include the majority of mainstream apps.
Facebook emphasizes that it does “not share information that personally identifies you (personally identifiable information is information like name or email address, that can by itself be used to contact you or identifies who you are).”
Facebook does not allow any kind of opt-out of its data collection. But users who want to know exactly what data the social media giant has stored about them can download a report which shows just that, in the General Account Settings area of Facebook’s settings menu.
Facebook’s new advertising policy means that if you’re logged into Facebook on your phone or on your desktop web browser, it will automatically track what sites you visit and what you do when you’re on them - e.g. making purchases - and what you do within apps on your phone. It can use this information to generate targeted advertising.
Facebook is equipped with a tool to allow users to complain about targeted ads - called the Ad Preferences Tool - but you can only complain about specific adverts once you’ve seen them. And it is not possible to prevent Facebook’s ad tracking by using a browser’s ‘Do Not Track’ function.
But what can anyone tell about you from your likes?
Meanwhile, researchers have discovered that your Facebook ‘likes’ - even if it’s just stuff like Harry Potter, Taylor Swift or Homeland - can be used to build a detailed personality profile.
With enough ’likes’ to go on, an algorithm created jointly by researchers at Stanford and Cambridge universities can create a personality profile that is capable of assessing you more accurately than your nearest friends or family.
Limiting Facebook ‘likes’ to things with more than 100,000 likes in total (i.e. mainstream TV shows, music and films), the scientists found that more than 25% of people have ‘liked’ more than 250 things.
This level of data is enough for the algorithm to predict a 100-question personality profile more accurately than a family member. With more than 300 ‘likes’ per subject, the algorithm became more accurate than a spouse.
In its own right, the fact that you’ve ‘liked’ Parks and Recreation or The Hunger Games is not a revealing piece of information. But the precise combination of all your ‘likes’ can be built into a detailed and surprisingly specific profile.
David Stillwell, one of the lead researchers, said that not all of the details of the research had been published, but that the service that generated the information was available for companies to purchase, with the caveat that users have to consent to having their Facebook profile data used in this way.
“No-one should have had a prediction made about them without their knowledge,” he added.
The findings pose troubling questions for the way companies and law enforcement agencies could use innocent personal information to build personality profiles which hint at a much more intimate level of knowledge than a ‘like’ for Beyonce should ever yield.