Watch Out of Office on our YouTube Channel

This Is What Facebook and Google Do With Your Online Data

Social media sites, most notably Facebook and Twitter, have been in hot water due to the role they played in Russian hacking during the US election.

Facebook disclosed in a blog post that roughly $100 000 worth of fake ads (roughly 3000) were sold to ad groups linked to Russian accounts between June 2015 and May 2017. As Facebook described it, the ads geographically targeted and  “amplified divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights”.  If you’ve thought that lately the news has read like a dystopian novel, you’re not alone.

The average millennial reportedly checks their phone 150 times a day. Because we spend so much time interacting with each other (and businesses) online, it’s increasingly important to know exactly what data companies collect on you regarding your activity and preferences. More importantly, you should know how they intend to use that information and who they share it with. Sure, the intended purpose is to help you in daily life, while hopefully convincing you to buy more products along the way. This is largely an accepted part of the online experience nowadays; when you open Google Maps you expect it to zero in on your current location and Amazon’s recommendations bar has changed e-commerce forever. But Russia’s recent interference in the US election is a dangerous example of how all this data can be used when it falls into the hands of people with nefarious intentions. Here’s how some of the biggest online companies are tracking your activity:

What They Track
It should come as no surprise that Google is tracking what you type into their search bar (including voice searches), but you should also be aware that it tracks what you watch on YouTube as well as your Google Maps activity, such as which locations you frequent. If you use Chrome, Google also knows every site you’ve visited (the good, the bad, and the naughty). Apart from Google products, through Adwords (Google’s ubiquitous ad-serving service), the search giant can see which sites you visit even if you use FireFox, Safari, or Microsoft Edge (lol). To see who Google thinks you are based on your activity, make sure you’re signed into your account and visit I’ll admit it was quite eerie to see how accurately Google has me pegged – broken down neatly into topic preferences, gender and age range.

How They Use The Data
The majority of Google’s revenue is generated by selling advertisements. With the wealth of knowledge Google is collecting on you, they are able to offer extremely appealing packages to companies looking to target specific genders, and age groups, exactly on the websites those groups frequent most. Thanks to Google Maps, they can now even segment you by the activity you do.

How to Turn it Off
Click here to visit the voice search setting pages, and then click the three small dots in the upper right corner.

social-facebook-google-online-advertisement-trackingClick Activity controls to manage all privacy settings across Youtube, Google Maps, as well as Voice or typed queries.

Facebook (+ Instagram)
What They Track
Facebook (and Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012) tracks every time you comment, every time you “like” anything (from comments to pages – if you “like” it Facebook squares that information away). Facebook also tracks information from your profiles (IG too), and places you “checked-in” to using Facebook or Instagram. Both Facebook and Instagram use cookies, which are strings of text placed on your device or browser to uniquely identify you after you’ve visited a certain site. For example, this is the piece of code that allows sites to remember your password after you’ve signed in the first time. Most websites use cookies and will often tell you when they do so you have the option to turn it off when you first visit. Beyond what you do while you’re on their site, Facebook also tracks which links you click out to from their website or apps. Through Pixel, Facebook is even able to track your behaviour on sites outside of itself. You might have read articles that claim cookies are bad. Some people think it’s malicious when cookies are used on sites that don’t require sign ins because then those sites can track you without your consent. Facebook and Instagram both require you to sign in but the tricky part comes when they are tracking activity you are doing away from those two places so ads can be fed back to you when you return.

How They Use The Data
Similarly to Google, Facebook uses the information it collects on you to target ads for advertisers. Through Pixel, companies are able to retarget you if you’ve visited their website before. This is why you might see ads on Facebook for that coat you’ve been eyeing from The Bay after you were on The Bay’s website checking it out, or even if it was on the company’s app.Sneaky sneaky. Facebook also uses data to target ads based on geographical locations. They also sell an ad platform so that advertisers can benefit from Facebook data outside of Facebook. There is no limit to how targeted you can get if you get creative, for example, this ridiculous viral story of how one person was able to prank his roommate with targeted ads that only he was able to see.

How to Turn it Off
Visit this page to see what information Facebook is currently sharing with brands and to manage your preferences.

Your location information and online shopping activity are currently the most valuable pieces of data to companies because the future of advertising is being able to link the two. Advertisers want to deliver personalized ads to shoppers at the exact moment they will find it useful – a coupon in a printed flyer is no longer the most effect way to spend advertising dollars. Instead, a notification popping up for sales on cereal when you’re in the cereal aisle is what brands are aiming to achieve. When you think of all the ways we are sharing our online data that reality isn’t very far away.

Some might find this level of tracking terrifying while others are excited for the day to come when they will receive highly targeted ads for products they want – like Honey but all the time and in real life. Wherever you stand, it’s important to be informed about how your activity is being used by the online powers that be.

Carla Bragagnolo

Carla is in constant pursuit of the extraordinary; she is based out of Toronto due to its proximity to great food, its diverse music scene, and because it allows her to catch a flight to pretty much anywhere. Follow her adventures at @carlabrags.