We all know Facebook harvests our personal data and sells or gives it to third-parties. What you may not know is that it also siphons your past locations, interests, demographic information and friend groups.
As part of a corporate partnership, Facebook is reportedly giving away all that information to telecom companies. Companies use that data to target their Facebook advertising more efficiently, which sounds good at first. If you're going to be fed ads, why not get ones that are based on your interests. But privacy experts fear the data may also help these companies extrapolate information to guess your credit score.
Perhaps the worst part of this scheme is that consumers are unwittingly providing information that could be used against them.
How Facebook gives companies your information
According to a report in The Intercept, the “Actionable Insights” tool was quietly announced in a Facebook engineering blog last year. The post focused on how the tool could be used by its telecom partners to boost connectivity in areas around the world where service is spotty.
But the blog also mentioned how the tool could be used to “enable better business decisions” when used as an “analytics tool.”
A Facebook spokesperson told The Intercept that Actionable Insights does not collect data from users that isn't already being collected. Instead, the data is repackaged to make it is useful to third-party advertisers in the telecom and smartphone industries.
Does Facebook help third-party clients guess credit scores?
However, in documents obtained by The Intercept, the data can indeed be used to assess credit scores -- with an assist from Facebook.
In the documents, Facebook detailed how one foreign advertising client wanted to exclude people from future promotional offers on the basis of their credit.
From the documents: "Using data provided through Actionable Insights, a Data Science Strategist, a role for which Facebook continues to hire, was able to generate profiles of customers with desirable and undesirable credit standings. The advertising client then used these profiles to target or exclude Facebook users who resembled these profiles."
Users who resemble desirable profiles are called lookalike audiences. Using lookalike audiences is common in digital advertising and allows marketers to take a list of existing customers and let Facebook match them to users that resemble the original list based on factors like demographics and stated interests.
Obviously, people with "undesirable" credit would not be targeted by this advertiser. So Facebook's data on you is being used by advertisers to create an unofficial credit score based only on your locations, interests, demographic information and friend groups.
Facebook pushed back on The Intercept's report saying, “We do not, nor have we ever, rated people’s creditworthiness for Actionable Insights or across ads, and Facebook does not use people’s credit information in how we show ads.”
But Facebook does seem to show biases of its own, even when advertisers tell the company they want their ads seen by the widest audience possible.
Researchers from Northwestern University, the University of Southern California, and the public-interest advocacy group Upturn bought Facebook ads and asked for them to be displayed to a wide audience.
The researchers observed "significant skew in delivery along with gender and racial lines for 'real' ads for employment and housing opportunities despite neutral targeting parameters. Our results demonstrate previously unknown mechanisms that can lead to potentially discriminatory ad delivery, even when advertisers set their targeting parameters to be highly inclusive."
How to protect your Facebook data
If you've been a Facebook user for years, you can't go back and erase everything they know about you, but you can take steps to limit their access to your information. The most obvious step? Delete your Facebook account, but that's easier said than done. And even if you do cancel your account, you can't take back what you've already given them.
You can also make sure your settings are set to private and that you remove any apps that you don't use. This post from earlier this year will help you protect your Facebook data.
New innovative app shows your Facebook, Google and Twitter privacy gotchas
We're so deeply plugged into social media these days that untangling ourselves from them seems like more trouble than doing nothing. Even though Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all been caught mishandling user data, most people don't know the first thing about restoring their online privacy.