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Facebook And Other Firms Have A Ton Of Data On You. Here's How To Limit That

"Facebook is looking to know basically as much as possible about its users," Julia Angwin says.
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
"Facebook is looking to know basically as much as possible about its users," Julia Angwin says.

After Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, Facebook users — among many — are still wondering if online privacy still exists.

At the hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday, Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.) asked Zuckerberg if Facebook had detailed profiles on even those who had never signed up for the social networking site.

He replied, "In general, we collect data of people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes."

Investigative reporter Julia Angwin says that Facebook is not the only company that collects data in this way.

"What Facebook does — like Google actually, and a lot of Internet companies — is they have little invisible tracking technologies that they place on websites all over the Internet," she says. "That allows them to sort of see where you're going, and that's why ads can follow you around. And generally this idea of tracking everyone around the Internet is actually, unfortunately, a pretty well established practice that Facebook is one of many companies doing."

Interview Highlights

On the kind of data Facebook is looking for

Facebook is looking to know basically as much as possible about its users. When I looked at the ad categories that they had collected about people, they were extremely specific — things like "this person likes grass," or "this person is really interested in a certain type of wrestling." There was one ad category they had, which was a person who likes to pretend to text in awkward situations.

You know, these are the kinds of things they'd like to know about you because they're hoping some advertiser will want to buy that ad category.

On how to prevent your information from being shared

There's a couple things you can do. One is, you can go and work your way through all of Facebook's privacy settings and try to lock them down as much as possible.

Another thing you can do to get rid of the tracking that happens when you're not on Facebook — you can use ad tracking blocking tools. So I use something called Ghostery. There's something — Privacy Badger. There's a bunch of different tools like this, and they will say, "There are 15 different trackers on this website. Do you want to allow any of them?" And you can say no.

On if there's too much focus on Facebook

I think yes and no. Facebook is probably better at collecting so much data about everyone. Until two weeks ago, when they announced they were ending it, they were actually buying data from data brokers about your offline transactions and all the stuff that they couldn't see when you were on the Internet: your level of income, your car ownership. They've just said they're going to end that.

But the truth is that we're in a world where every business is racing to collect as much data as possible, because Google and Facebook have shown that monetizing that data could be extremely lucrative. And so, unfortunately, it's true that everyone is racing to get enormous amounts of data about us, and we don't have a huge amount of control over that until perhaps Congress maybe steps in with some of the things that they've been discussing in the past few days.

Jessica Cheung and Emily Kopp produced and edited the audio version of this story. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.