December 19, 2016

Is Facebook collecting too much data on us?

We give away our data in dribs and drabs and are seldom aware how it is used to target us to purchase more.

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What’s it about?

Sue Halpern looks at the issue of data collection by Facebook. Along the way she finds out what information Facebook holds on her and how accurate it is; meets the people behind the algorithms that shape the online world; and looks at problems and ethics in the algorithm driven economy.

Is Facebook collecting too much data on us?

  1. Facebook collects ninety-eight data points on each of its two billion users.
  2. Some of it you volunteer (in your profile), some comes from pictures that you are in (yours or others); some comes from following you around (regardless of what your “do not track” setting are).
  3. The company also buys information from data brokers worldwide, who collect information from store and loyalty cards and other places.
  4. Facebook both uses and sells this information to other advertisers.
  5. Facebook makes a lot of money from this. $2.3 billion in the third quarter of 2016 alone.
  6. The information Facebook and other companies have is not always accurate and uses assumptions or proxies (i.e. credit score as a proxy for being a good employee).


Advertisements show up on our Internet browser or Facebook page or Gmail and we tend to think they are there because some company is trying to sell us something it believes we want based on our browsing history or what we’ve said in an e-mail or what we were searching for on Google.

We don’t think they are there because we live in a particular neighbourhood, or hang out with certain kinds of people, or that we have been scored a particular and obscure way by a certain rendering of our lives. And most likely, we don’t imagine we are seeing those ads because an algorithm has determined that we are losers or easy marks or members of a particular ethnic or racial group.

Not Neutral

Data is not neutral. Someone decides what goes into an algorithm. Building presumption and prejudice into the formulas. That matters as the spread and influence of algorithms grows. And it matters when preferences, habits, zip codes and skin colour are used target the vulnerable with overpriced loans or dead end jobs. Adverts now target our pain points and offer us a market solution. Goods or services that we don’t need.

Take Away Points and Context

  • We give away our data in dribs and drabs and are seldom aware how it is used to target us to purchase more.
  • And there’s a political issue. There is no firewall between commercial surveillance and government surveillance. Police and intelligence agencies purchase and use this data all the time.
  • We could be trading hard won liberties to both the state and private enterprises. Giving away our personalities and preferences for things we believe are free.


Full article:

They Have, Right Now, Another You

by Sue Halpern

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

by Cathy O’Neil
Crown, 259 pp., $26.00

Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy

by Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice E. Stucke
Harvard University Press, 356 pp., $29.95


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