Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea called a virtual weight. It is simply the totality of our online selves, from the number of apps we have on our smartphones to the amount of photos we share on social media. Sometimes, I think a virtual weight is a better indicator of a persons well-being.
The start of a new year is high time for many people who wish a healthy body and lifestyle. But in addition to hitting the gym, they should also consider shedding their virtual weights. Fitness trainers advocate setting goals; so here is my nonexpert suggestion: Cut down or altogether disconnect from Facebook.
Last week, the investigative journalism nonprofit Pro Publica uncovered that Facebook secretly buys data about its users from outside commercial data brokers. The social media giant is gobbling up hundreds of data, categorized from household income and number of owned credit cards to a user’s offline history — and not letting the user know. Behind Facebook’s veneer may be another you constructed from your online history.
Facebook’s data collection is no big secret. Facebook has been “trying to give advertisers a chance to reach people both on and off Facebook,” since at least 2013, according to a Facebook communications manager in an interview with Lifehacker.
For some transparency, Facebook even has a page called the Ad Preferences page deep inside its settings tab for any curious user to check what Facebook knows — or says they know — about them. In it, Facebook lists all of your possible interests gathered from your profiles and from “a few sources” — at least six third-party data brokers.
But this ProPublica report is alarming for two reasons: one, Facebook’s Ad Preferences may be skipping out on nearly 600 possible categories which it uses to target specific advertisements; and two, the users have almost no way of signing out of this deal.
Even if Facebook’s partnerships with data brokers don’t particularly concern you, the last two points should trouble you. When asked by ProPublica why Facebook won’t disclose its third-party data, Facebook simply punted responsibility to these opaque data brokers.
“This is because the data providers we work with generally make their categories available across many different ad platforms, not just on Facebook,” says Steve Satterfield, a Facebook manager of privacy and public policy.
Facebook’s excuse is problematic because data brokers like Datalogix and Acxiom (household names, right?) don’t make their categories about how they classify users readily available. The vast majority of users, including myself, don’t know where to find them or even know of their existence. But Facebook seems to think it was clear from the start.
“ProPublica’s piece neglects to mention the ways we provide transparency and control around the ads experience on Facebook and off,” a Facebook spokesperson explained to Mic. “A person can click on the upper-right corner of any ad on Facebook to learn why they’re seeing the ad. When they’re seeing an ad because they’re in a data provider’s audience, we tell them that and link to the data provider’s opt-out.”
Speaking of opting out, good luck with that. To opt out of Facebook’s partner data brokers, Facebook recommends directly contacting the brokers. Then comes the paperwork. To sign out of Datalogix, the user needs to snail mail a written request and a copy of government-issue identification to its chief privacy officer. For Acxiom, they need the last four digits of your social security number.
Even then, the user has no final say if these brokers will keep their word. Julia Angwin, the author of the ProPublica report, tried to remove her data from 92 data brokers. She succeeded opting out of less than half before giving up.
All our clicks, likes and comments add up like excess calories on our news feeds to sell us the most intimate advertisements. In my prognosis, most of us are virtually obese thanks to Facebook.
There are ways to shed the Facebook excess. For one, turn off permission for Facebook (Go to Settings, then Ads) to use your information for them and its partner data brokers to target specific advertisements. Another is to put your Facebook profile on a diet by clearing personal information and likes to bare bones.
For those pesky data brokers, download anti-tracking extensions on your web browser, like Disconnect Private Browsing, Ghostery or Privacy Badger. Any of them will do, and it takes less than 10 seconds to download.
As with any fitness-related matters, there are a million other ways to stave off Facebook fat. Some will suggest deleting Facebook altogether for maximum liberation. Whatever your modus operandi may be against the Facebook panopticon, I hope — as a gym trainer might say — you find something you like and stick to it for the new year.
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at firstname.lastname@example.org.