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Facebook Knows More Than You Think

by Jane Susskind, published
Credit: The Atlantic

Facebook and Datalogix

Routinely used by over 1 billion people in the world, Facebook has accumulated the most extensive set of data on human tendencies in the world. What's more, because Facebook is a "free" service, it has accumulated this information with little to no resistance from users and lawmakers worldwide. Now, a partnership between Facebook and Datalogix makes such information harvesting all the more alarming to privacy advocates.

From message activity to the geolocation for every picture shared on the social network via smartphone to our most intimate life events, Facebook consumes a lot of our private data. And the information overload doesn't end with the information we willingly hand over when filling out our profiles, updating our timelines, and messaging friends. That "Like" box we see on almost every website now helps Facebook track our communication and preferences almost everywhere on the Internet, even if we don't click "Like."

Facebook knows what music we listen to, where and when we read the news, who we communicate with, what we communicate and, since earlier this year, what products we purchase, even what we're buying at the drug store.

Earlier this year, Techcrunch put a price tag on Facebook users, reporting that Facebook makes an average of $1.21 on each user per quarter. With Facebook crossing the 1 billion user benchmark in September of 2012, that's 1.2 billion dollars a quarter, or almost 5 billion dollars a year.

In what Nick Carr described as “digital sharecropping,” Facebook users collectively produce profitable content, placing the economic rewards in the hands of those with the power to aggregate the information. In turn, the fruits of our labor are enjoyed by very few, while labor is masked under the guise of "self-expression" and "socializing."

"Because Facebook’s content is created by its members, ARPU also tells us the monetary value of each member’s labor. If the average Facebook sharecropper were to be paid a revenue share for his or her work on the site, that member would make a buck and change every three months – about enough for one crappy cup of coffee."

Reiterated by technology review, "your data is most valuable when combined with what other companies know." Knowing the value of their database, Facebook recently partnered with Datalogix, "a company that collects purchasing data from around 70 million U.S. households drawn from loyalty cards and other sources."

The partnership offers companies targeted ads in mobile apps or on mobile websites based on what is known about that user by Facebook. In conjunction, the companies can now track user tendencies in purchasing items advertised to them on Facebook.

The partnership has raised concern among privacy advocates, who worry the new practice violates the Federal Trade Commission regulations. Facebook's response? There's an opt-out option. Hidden in the depths of Facebook's "Help" center, they give users the option to opt out. But to do so, one would have to 1) know about the partnership, 2) know they were given the option to opt-out of the practice, and 3) be able to find that option in the overly confusing "Help" section that so rarely actually "helps" users navigate their privacy settings on the site. If this sounds to confusing it's because it is, and you can opt-out on the Datalogix website here.

As with most societal shifts, politics has failed to keep up with the challenges that shape our world today. Social media and privacy threats are no different, and laws defining our rights to privacy online are scarce. Because Facebook is "free," the only way to avoid the intrusive exploitation of our information is to stop using the social network. In deciding not to use a network hosting one-seventh of the world's population, however, we risk isolation from the most used social network in the world. Until legislation is passed protecting our rights to privacy online, the choice is yours. And if you choose to socialize online, your information is theirs.

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