98 things Facebook knows about you

The Washington Post recently published a list of 98 specific user details that it says Facebook keeps tabs on.

The theory is that this helps the Zuckernaut to know enough about your behaviours and interests not only to offer better value to its advertisers, but also to make you happier by showing you ads for stuff you might actually like.

(That’s called targeted advertising, where you’re the target.)

The thing is, the list contains some unusual entries that have understandably put the world into a bit of a spin, such as:

14. Square footage of home
29. Mothers, divided by “type” (soccer, trendy, etc.)
45. How much money user is likely to spend on next car
62. Expats (divided by what country they are from originally)
79. Users who are “heavy” buyers of beer, wine or spirits

Number 92 on the Washington Post’s list is probably the most perplexingly eclectic combination:

92. Users who are interested in the Olympics, fall football, cricket or Ramadan

Of course, for many users, lots of this information, such as:

2. Age 
4. Gender
8. School

…doesn’t need any research or deduction by Facebook, because many people provide this willingly when they create their Facebook profile.

Similarly, information such as:

51. Operating system
59. Internet browser

…is readily gleaned from almost every web request you to make to every site, as it’s tucked into the HTTP headers.

The bad news is that this all sounds very creepy, and perhaps it is.

The good news is that Facebook has a way to review what it thinks you like, although as far as I can see, it’s not as straightforward as simply pulling up a 98-point list and editing or deleting each entry.

I logged in, went to Settings | Ads and then clicked on the Ads based on my preferences option:

There you will find a [Visit Ad Preferences] button that takes you to a page that shows what Facebook thinks you’re into.

On the Business and industry tab, I found out what Facebook thought I might like: apparently I am interested in golf and Sophos:

It would be surprising if Facebook hadn’t inferred that I’m interested in Sophos, but where my supposed interest in the Professional Golfers’ Association of America comes from I just can’t imagine.

I’m sure golf is a wonderful and companionable game, and I’m delighted that Britain won the Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, but it’s not for me – I’d just tip 13 balls into the lake up front and free up hours of time to do something enjoyable instead.

Clearly, Facebook does figure out a lot about you as you use the service and interact with other people, many of whose interests you may share, but it’s far from precise if it thinks that golf is a key interest of mine.

Fortunately, you can use the Ad Preferences page to delete any or all of the data points that Facebook keeps on you, by clicking on an “interest” icon to bring up a delete option, although that won’t spare you from ads:

If you remove all your preferences you’ll still see ads, but they may be less relevant to you.

What I couldn’t find, but would like to have accessed to from Ad Preferences, was a one-stop page containing all the categories, as listed by the Washington Post, but it seems that until Facebook decides you are interested in X, it won’t tell you that X is one of the 98 categories it keeps track of.

We’re guessing that the Washington Post figured out its 98-point list by creating an new ad, or pretending to, and browsing through all the categories that advertisers can choose from when configuring the targeting of that ad.

Have your say!

What do you think?

Is a list of categories like this (whether it really is 98, or 57, or 242) a step too far?

Or are targeted ads mostly harmless?

After all, you’re going to be getting ads anyway – so what’s the harm in making them at least vaguely relevant, based on information you’ve already revealed to Facebook?