Here’s what Facebook watches you do online and how to control it

As Facebook turns 20 on 4 February, it's worth taking stock of how much of your online life you're prepared to let Meta monitor.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on January 31, 2024 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony from the heads of the largest tech firms on the dangers of child sexual exploitation on social media. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook stores a large amount of data about its billions of users. (Getty Images)

It's no secret Facebook collects a huge amount of information on all its users secret – but even knowing this, it can be a surprise just how much of your life Mark Zuckerberg's company can monitor.

If you’re logged into your account in a web browser, for example, Facebook will be watching your web activity - along, of course, with everything you do on Facebook itself, from who you are friends with to what you ‘like’. Visit your ‘Off Facebook Activity’ page and you’ll see thousands of titbits of information about you, whether it's games you play, the apps you use, or to other websites you visit.

The amount of information available to Facebook and Meta, which owns Facebook, is far more than you share even with your most-loved human connections, warns Tom Gaffney, cybersecurity expert at F-Secure. Facebook isn't doing anything wrong - all of this information is harvested perfectly legally, and you will have personally agreed to it happening by agreeing to their terms and conditions when you join, he adds.

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What Facebook knows about you

According to Gaffney, if you have a account owned by Meta then you have agreed to share your online activity: "This includes the data you knowingly provide (name, contact, likes, loves & interests) but it also includes data that it collects directly.

“This means everything from your device type, your browser, your phone number, location, the apps you use and search history – even deleted sites.” But Meta knows even more than this, by collecting data from other apps that you use, outside of Facebook (don't forget it is also Meta who owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and data is shared between these three apps as well).

Who can see my data?

Facebook mostly uses your data internally to serve adverts, but also ‘tops this up’ with data from other sources to build a clearer picture of you.

Gaffney says that Facebook collects huge amounts of data both from the apps you use and from ‘data brokers’ who collect information online.

He says: ‘“Data brokers are organisations that buy and sell user data, they make money through advertising and so will share any and all personal details they can with Facebook. Defining exactly what data that involves is almost impossible as the details are very vague in Meta’s terms and conditions.

“All this data is used to create a broader picture of who we are and what we do, in what academics like Shoshana Zuboff termed 'surveillance capitalism'. The huge amount of data collected enables Meta to build a mosaic of our lives. Your online history indicates not just benign things like your favourite football team or interest in pets but also your ethnicity, sexual preferences, religious beliefs, medical problems, hopes, fears and anxieties. It’s incredibly intrusive.”

Abstract circuit and mechanical eye on dark background. Digital internet crime concept.
Facebook stores a significant amount of data about you - unless you take action. (Getty)

How to take control of the data Facebook stores

It used to be harder to see the amount of information that Facebook has amassed on all its users, but there’s now one easy to use Your Information page.

If you are concerned about companies like Meta using your data, there are key settings which you should adjust.

“The simplest way to avoid any of this is to not use these services at all," says Gaffney. "Because it’s impossible to opt-out of data collection if you use Meta services. However, in today’s world, it can be difficult not to use them so the best advice is to limit the data by making use of Facebook’s own privacy pages."

The Your Information page lets you see everything Facebook knows about you - which includes advertisers who target you, location history and search history.

05 May 2021, Berlin: A privacy notice appears on an iPhone 12 under the new iOS 14.5.1 operating system. Developers of an application have to ask for the user's permission to allow cross-app tracking. The new policy had led to conflicts between Apple and Facebook because the social network fears a slump in its advertising revenue. Photo: Christoph Dernbach/dpa (Photo by Christoph Dernbach/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Facebook mostly uses your data internally to serve adverts. (Getty)

Which settings to turn off

Perhaps most important is the sub-menu for Apps and Websites off Facebook, which includes information Facebook receives from other sites.

To stop Facebook receiving information from other sites (you might have agreed to this when you signed up to another service, or just agreed to a contract), go to Your Activity off Meta Technologies, then Manage Future Activity, then Disconnect Future Activity.

(It’s possible some of these steps may vary according to which Facebook services you have signed up to, but this worked on the account Yahoo News UK tested it for).

This stops other apps and services from sharing your information with Facebook, vastly curtailing its surveillance capabilities.

Gaffney also advises turning off location tracking (you can do this by removing the app’s permission to track your location in either Android or iOS), and disabling Facebook’s ad-tracking features.

It's not easy to find this option, but (in desktop PC Facebook) go to Settings and Privacy, Privacy Center, Ad Settings, Activity information from Ad Partners, and turn that setting off.

Then go to Categories Used to Reach You and disable the private information used to send you ads (such as your marital status and job).

Then finally visit 'Ads shown outside of Meta' and turn off that option to stop ads from Facebook 'following' you on the internet.

And if all that isn't enough and you decide you want to get rid of all your information in one go, Facebook’s own suggested solution is simple: delete your account - information to do that can be found here.

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