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If you’re like most social media users, you probably assume that Facebook is only tracking your online activity when you are actually using the Facebook app on your digital device. However, thanks to a variety of different business relationships that the social media company has put into place, Facebook is becoming remarkably good at tracking your offline activity as well.
Tracking offline purchase activity
For example, many Facebook users have noticed how the social media platform has a remarkable ability to know when they make certain purchases at brick-and-mortar retail stores. As soon as they make a purchase at one of these stores, they start to see related ads for those products every time they open up Facebook. This is not a coincidence: Facebook has put into place advertising relationships with stores such as Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods such that Facebook is receiving personally identifying information from these stores in order to help these stores “re-target” customers with ads later.
Here’s how it works: retail stores share as much personally identifying information (e.g. date of birth, email address, street address, phone number) as they have about a certain customer with Facebook. Of course, stores simply can’t hand over that kind of information without raising all kinds of privacy red flags, so they anonymize the data and use so-called hashing functions so that the data is being sent as encrypted code rather than plain text. Facebook’s algorithms then go to work, trying to find a potential match for this data with an existing Facebook user. Once a match is made, Facebook can show that person a highly targeted ad that corresponds to a recent purchase.
How Facebook converts anonymized data into profile matches
This is easier to do than you might think. Ever wonder why store cashiers are always asking you to provide a phone number or email address when you buy an item? With just a few points of data, it’s remarkably easy to link anonymized data to a real person’s profile. In other words, Facebook might only know that “Person 123456789” made a purchase in Philadelphia on December 24, but with an extra bit of data (such as a phone number or email), Facebook can make a highly educated guess about who that person might be. It’s like one of those silly games you might play with your young kids: “I’m thinking of an animal who lives in Philadelphia that flies and starts with the letter E.” Umm, could it be… an Eagle?
What else is Facebook tracking?
The scary thing, of course, is that Facebook is getting even more “creative” about how it collects data about you. In some cases, cyber security researchers have found cases where the Facebook app works in the background even when it’s not open on your smart phone, so that it can collect data about which apps you are using when you are not using Facebook, or your geolocation data.
The good news is that, under pressure from privacy activists, Facebook has introduced new tools to help you manage what it refers to as “off-Facebook activity.” If you’re concerned about Facebook knowing a little too much about what you do offline, it’s now possible to limit the ability of Facebook to track you offline. Yes, it can take a few minutes to figure out which buttons to toggle in the app, but doing so could help to make your overall Facebook experience a lot more enjoyable and a lot less creepy.