The origin, the path and the content of the information we share on Facebook

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Facebook changed the way we use the Internet. Until a few years ago, while communicating through a chat or a forum, we were used to provide fake information and pseudonyms, in order to preserve our identity.

After the spread of Facebook, we decided not only to make public our biographical data, but also to grant the service providers with personal information concerning our everyday life. Since sharing personal information over the social networks has become part of our daily routine, we are continuously asking the social networks to process many personal data, maybe more than we could expect.

This article focuses on the origin, the path and the content of the information we share, using as a guide the privacy policies and the user’s agreement issued by Facebook, that we accepted while subscribing to the service.

Personal information WE share

When subscribing to Facebook, we are requested to provide several mandatory information (§ 1.1.1.), such as our real name, email address, birthday, and gender. Those are the first information we decide to share, and they are generally shown to the open public: not only random Facebook users may look at those data, but also Google might index them. Have you ever tried to “google” your name? You could easily find your Facebook profile, if you did not turn public search off. That is just the first part of the information we ask Facebook to process; while using Facebook we constantly decide to share with the social network many other information, such as photos, updates on what we are doing or thinking, information about our personal tastes (our favourite book, film, singer, etc.), but also data on our relationship and family ties.

Personal Information OTHERS share about US

While we are aware of sharing the information indicated above with the social network, we cannot prevent Facebook from processing our personal data when other people, our Friends, share a photo taken with us, tag our face or our position, or add us to a group. For example, according to § 2.3.1. of the Facebook Privacy Policy, “Anyone can tag you in anything. Once you are tagged in a post, you and your friends will be able to see it”.

According to §2.3 of the Facebook Privacy Policy, Facebook permits you to block an user from sharing things on your wall. You can also delete a contact from your friend’s list, but that will not prevent that contact from posting messages, photos or files regarding you. The social network therefore gives you the chance to report a user or a inappropriate content; it does not mean that the user or the content will be removed from Facebook, but rather that Facebook will evaluate if there is the need to stop an abuse. From a practical point of view, it seems that Facebook usually decides to delete the contested content.

 The EXTENT of the information shared: by reading Facebook Privacy Policy, it gets clear that we share much more information than we could expect.

First of all, we have to assume that every interaction made with Facebook, it is a shared data (§1.1.3.). Facebook might record every single action you take on the social network: Facebook knows when you look at another person’s profile and how many times you do it. Here is a small example: Facebook has recently added a “lists” section, where it suggests you to add some people to a list labelled “closest friends”; Facebook suggests you that those friends are the people you interact with (or stalk) the most.

On the other hand, we must understand that the information we share is multimedia kind of information (§1.1.3). In fact, when you  upload a photo taken with your mobile phone, you ask Facebook to process a large number of information contained in that file. Every time we take a picture with our camera or mobile phone, the device inserts as well, in addition to the photo, various information, the so-called meta-data, such as the time, date, and GPS position of the place you took the photo or the video. And Facebook might record it.

Furthermore, we granted Facebook with the right to elaborate the information shared by us and our friends (§1.1.3. and § 4.1.). Facebook therefore creates a profile based on our data; this profile is the source of the ads appearing on Facebook. On the Privacy Policy (§ 4.1.) we encounter an illuminating example of the way Facebook analyses and elaborates our data: “Sometimes we allow advertisers to target a category of user, like a “moviegoer” or a “sci-fi fan.” We do this by bundling characteristics that we believe are related to the category. For example, if a person “likes” the “Star Trek” Page and mentions “Star Wars” when they check into a movie theater, we may conclude that this person is likely to be a sci-fi fan”.

 The information we do NOT KNOW we are sharing: Facebook can track your position and company. Google logs many data that receives from the devices we use to access the service. Those data include the IP address and the GPS position. So Facebook knows where you are. And if a friend shares the same GPS position or IP address, Facebook knows who is with you. According to § 1.1.3 of the Privacy Policy, GPS location is kept “until is no longer useful to provide you service”.

In addition to the above, Facebook receives data whenever we visit a site that incorporates the Social Plugin technology, better known as the “Like Button”. As a result, when we are logged into Facebook, the social network knows the web addresses of the pages we are visiting, and many technical information about the IP address, browser and the operating system we use. For instance, if you are one of the 70% Internet users that visit porn related web sites, you should be aware that if you did not logged out from Facebook, the social network is processing data concerning your sexual preferences. And you authorized it. The good news is that Facebook keeps this information for 90 days; after that period, the social network removes any personally identifying information from the data, or combines it with other people’s data.

Well, if you just logged out from Facebook, it could not be enough: the social network is apparently able to track offline users activity on the Internet by storing “cookies”. Those cookies, small files that contain a unique identification number associated to our account, track the web pages we visited, and return this information to the social network as soon as we reconnect. (I would like to suggest you to delete your cookies: you might still have a couple of them stored in you temporary files). True or not, we granted Facebook (as appears from §6.7 of the Privacy Policy) the right to store cookies in our devices in order “to make Facebook easier to use, make our advertising better, and to protect you (and Facebook)”.

 Who owns the information we share?

There is a rumor that Facebook owns the photos we upload to the network. It is not true. According to § 1.4. of Facebook Data Use Policy, the user always owns his personal information. § 2 of Facebook’s Terms of use clarifies that we grant Facebook “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use” any “content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos”. This licence ends when we delete our account or the content covered by intellectual property rights. Unfortunately, we should not forget the motto “once in the net, forever in the net”: even after deletion, somebody might share again those contents.

 What does Facebook do with our personal data?

In accordance with § 1.4. of Facebook Data Use Policy, the social network uses the personal information we share “in connection with the services and features” provided to the users, but also in connection with “the advertisers that purchase ads on the site, and the developers that build the games and applications”.

Therefore, Facebook process our personal data in order to provide us with the service we required, and to sell data to the advertisers, largely without any personally identifying information. Today Facebook is worth millions of dollars because it is the largest and most comprehensive database ever created for marketing. As someone said, “if you are not paying for it you’re not the customer you’re the product being sold”.

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