What happens to the data in Facebook?

What does Facebook do with our data?
  • Technology

Facebook isn’t just Facebook anymore. Facebook – that’s the social network itself, that’s the messenger service, Instagram, Whatsapp and Oculus VR, a manufacturer of virtual reality hardware. Plus a Research Lab that justifies its experiments and evaluations to the outside world by saying, “Empowering people to connect requires constant innovation.”

This sociological data collection is the largest of its kind in private hands. Data protectionists such as Max Schrems or Katharina Nocun have made it their task to keep the discussion in society as a whole about the use of data going, because it is no longer just about personalized advertising.

When you read the headline “Creating Smarter, More Meaningful Experiences Globally” on the front page of Facebook Research, you want to agree with the company. Yes, of course, a digital world wants to be sensibly organized. But a look behind the scenes leaves one more than clueless. It takes seven clicks just to see the interest categories according to which Facebook spits out advertising for users. You can imagine how many it takes to clean up these categories. But if you want to get a complete data profile, as is possible for all users on request according to the GDPR, you have to be persistent. Privacy advocate Katharina Noncun did this after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and published the results in her book The Data I Called: How We Sell Our Freedom to Big Business. Because Facebook knows a lot more than it reveals at first glance.

Searches and location history

First perhaps to the already well-known things: Facebook saves all search entries ever made. Any name or phrase entered on a whim is neatly logged. In the “Your location history” section, users who have given the Facebook app access to their location can see when and where they were on the road. In large cities, the information is so accurate that you can even guess the house number. Years later, you can still see on a map which restaurants you have ever visited.

Friends and those who aren’t anymore

The data set logged to the minute when a contact was made and on whose initiative. The overview lists which friend requests were rejected and which remained unanswered. Facebook not only knows our current friends, but also those we removed years ago.

Interest categories – for higher advertising prices

In the “Advertising” section, users will find a list of all Facebook ads that they have ever clicked on, and under the heading “Advertising interests” are all the categories that you can be put into based on usage behavior – and without realizing it became. This leads to absurd categorizations such as “salt”, “bier” or “Blue-ray Disc”. The “Advertisers with your contact information” section contains a list of organizations and companies that have matched the email address of the relevant usage profile with Facebook in order to serve personalized advertising. Consent to such a data comparison is often hidden in the small print of many companies and newsletters. However, if you are unlucky, you will also find companies in the list that have carried out a comparison without a legal basis – i.e. illegally.

Photos and what they were made with


Each photo and video is stored with the IP address it was uploaded. Depending on the camera or smartphone settings, the image files also contain information about the device, exposure settings, date of recording or even the location (longitude and latitude). If you have activated the appropriate settings on your smartphone, you could even find the coordinates of your own apartment here. Even if this data is filtered out in the public Facebook posts, Facebook itself notices it very well.

I like (not anymore)

People change, but data remains. Anyone who has been using Facebook for years will learn a lot about themselves in their data set. Every message, every interaction and every comment is saved. Every group discussion, every like and smiley or casually distributed link is logged. Likewise, all events to which one was ever even invited. But it goes even further: data protection experts have long suspected the company to basically store everything. When the lawyer and data protection activist Max Schrems obtained the release of his data in 2011, he even found deleted posts or entries that had never been sent.

The complete answer to the question “What does Facebook know about me?” would scare many users. Who clicks on whose profile when and stays on it for how long is by no means data garbage, but reveals a lot about our inner world. However, it is no longer just about the protection of individual privacy, but how we assess this development for global society. We have to ask ourselves under what pretext such data can be collected at all and recognize that there is no longer a clear dividing line between advertising and psychological profiling, which can sometimes also determine the outcome of elections.

Even if, after the judgment in May 2021, the Privacy Shield was declared invalid as the legal basis for the exchange of personal data of European citizens to the USA due to a lack of data protection, the following still applies: Even with adjusted privacy settings, the social network is still in front of one of the most comprehensively monitored location in the digital space.