[5/22/17]  I wrote this for my friends and family, to explain why the latest Facebook privacy policy is really harmful. Maybe it’ll help you too. External references – and steps to get off properly – at the bottom.

2017 update: A lot of these concerns I had have proven true. Facebook has been consistent with its pattern of contempt for its users. I’ve updated this with a few more points and links.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask you why you’re getting off Facebook,” is the guilty and reluctant question I’m hearing a lot these days. Like we kinda know Facebook is bad, but don’t really want to know.

I’ve been a big Facebook supporter – one of the first users in my social group who championed what a great way it was to stay in touch, way back in 2006. I got my mum and brothers on it, and around 20 other people. I’ve even taught Facebook marketing in one of the UK’s biggest tech education projects, Digital Business Academy. I’m a techie and a marketer – so I can see the implications – and until now, they hadn’t worried me. I’ve been pretty dismissive towards people who hesitate with privacy concerns.

Just checking…

Over the 2014/15 holidays, I thought I’d take a few minutes to check on the upcoming privacy policy change, with a cautious “what if” attitude. With our financial and location information on top of everything else, there were some concerning possibilities. Turns out what I suspected already happened 2 years ago, starting in 2011! That few minutes of searching turned into a few days of research and reading. I dismissed a lot of claims I found that could be explained as accidents – technically plausible or technically lazy. After all, I’m a startup founder myself and know how hard tech can be. For example, the excessive permissions that Facebook Android app asks for are a technical issue to do with Android. But there was still a lot of serious privacy concerns left over, and I considered those facts with techniques that I know to be standard practice in data-driven marketing.

With this latest privacy change on January 30th, 2015 I’m scared.

Facebook has always been slightly worse than all the other tech companies with dodgy privacy records, but now, it’s in its own league. Getting off isn’t just necessary to protect yourself, it’s necessary to protect your friends and family too. This could be the point of no return – but it’s not too late to take back control.

A short list of some Facebook practices

It’s not just what Facebook is saying it’ll take from you and do with your information, it’s all the things it’s not saying, and doing anyway because of the loopholes they create for themselves in their Terms of Service and how simply they go back on their word. We don’t even need to click “I agree” anymore. They just change the privacy policy and by staying on Facebook, you agree. Oopsy!

Facebook doesn’t keep any of your data safe or anonymous, no matter how much you lock down your privacy settings. Those are all a decoy. There are very serious privacy breaches, like selling your product endorsement to advertisers and politicians, tracking everything you read on the internet, or using data from your friends to learn private things about you – none of these privacy breaches have an off switch. Worse yet, Facebook does these things without ever letting you know, or revealing the damage to you if you ask.

Facebook gives your data to “third-parties” through your use of apps, and then say that’s you doing it, not them. Every time you use an app connected to Facebook, you’re allowing Facebook to escape its own privacy policy with you and with your friends. It’s like when my brother used to make me punch myself and ask, “why are you punching yourself?” Then he’d tell my mum it wasn’t his fault.

I dug in. I discovered all the spying Facebook does – which I double-checked with articles from big reputable news sources and academic studies that were heavily scrutinised. (Links are all in the Source section at the bottom of this post.)

It sounds nuts when you put it all together!

  • Facebooks creates false endorsements for products from you to your friends – and they never reveal this to you.
  • When you see a like button on the web, Facebook is tracking that you’re reading that page. It scans the keywords on that page and associates them to you. It knows much time you spend on different sites and topics.
  • They read your private messages and the contents of the links you send privately.
  • They’ve introduced features that turn your phone’s mic on without telling you. Based on their track-record changing privacy settings back without telling you, audio surveillance is likely to start happening without your knowledge.
  • They can use face recognition to track your location through pictures , even those that aren’t on Facebook. (Pictures taken with mobile phones have time, date and GPS data built into them.)
  • They track your location, and use that to discover private things about you, like if you’re sick (because you’re at the doctor or a specialist), who you sleep with (who’s beside you at night), where you work, if you’re job-searching (1-hour meetings at competitors offices), etc.
  • They’ve used snitching campaigns to trick people’s friends into revealing information about them that they chose to keep private.
  • They use the vast amount of data they have on you, from your likes, things you read, things you type but don’t post, to make highly accurate models about who you are – even if you make it a point of keeping these things secret. There are statistical techniques, which have been used in marketing for decades, that find correlating patterns between someone’s behaviour and their attributes. Even if you never posted anything, they can easily work out your age, gender, sexual orientation and political views. When you post, they work out much more. Then they reveal it to banks, insurance companies, governments, and of course, advertisers.

“I have nothing to hide”

A lot of people aren’t worried about this, feeling they have nothing to hide. Why would they care about little old me? Why should I worry about this when I’m not doing anything wrong?

The now famous story of the pregnant teenager being outed by the store Target, after it mined her purchase data – larger handbags, headache pills, tissues – and sent her a “congratulations” message as marketing, which her unknowing father got instead. Oops!

The same is done about you, and revealed to any company without your control. And this extrapolates into different ways your data can reveal something about you to people you don’t want to know about it.

One of the more obvious problems here is with insurance companies. The data they have on you is mined to predict your future. Would you like to be denied health insurance because an algorithm incorrectly predicted you were starting to see a heart specialist?

What about your employer or prospective employer knowing that you might be pregnant?

Would you like your boss to know when you’re not really home sick, or when you’re looking for another job?

Would you like others to know if you’re having trouble paying your mortgage? If you’re selling your house, buyers will know they have the upper hand.

Don’t confuse privacy with secrecy. I know what you do in the bathroom, but you still close the door. That’s because you want privacy, not secrecy. (From I have nothing to hide. Why should I care about my privacy?

While most of us feel we have nothing to hide, we all come across situations where we need certain things to be secret, at least for a while. But we’re giving that up – and for what?

From the Terms Of Service (not the Privacy Policy – see what they did there?):

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