Facebook is not just a place for you to scroll through Dogspotting posts and hate-read your ex’s status updates. It’s a gold mine for marketers — and that can present problems for people concerned about data security.
Facebook profits off of its 1.4 billion daily users in a big way: According to its most recent filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the average revenue per user in 2017 was $20.21 ($6.18 in the fourth quarter alone). Users in the U.S. and Canada were worth even more because of how big the markets are.
“They don’t charge for Facebook, but they are able to sell insights based on how we use the platform and then serve it up for marketers,” says Jennifer M. Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications and social media expert at Syracuse University. “It sounds kind of simple, but the marketers are willing to strategically place advertisements, from selling sneakers to ads for politics.”
The sheer amount of data Facebook collects on its users is impressive. In 2016, the Washington Post identified 98 data points the site uses to target ads, including age, gender, school, square footage of home, relationship status, political leaning, where someone shops, if they like the Olympics and whether they own a motorcycle.
Though Facebook doesn’t directly sell your information, it does “let businesses and organizations connect with the people who are most likely to be interested in their products and services,” as its ad education portal explained. That sort of data is at the heart of the ongoing scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica, a U.K. company that acquired the personal information of some 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge. Cambridge Analytica is accused of improperly accessing the secretly collected information and then using it to develop voter insight for clients (which may or may not have included Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign).
Facebook has argued that the Cambridge Analytica debacle is not technically a breach because nobody broke in and stole passwords — a small subset of users consented to their data being collected through a quiz program, and the app then accessed their friends’ information. Facebook’s former vice president of ads, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, posted Monday that it was serious about protecting its community and their data.
“While this was not a data breach, I agree that this was a breach of trust,” he wrote.
But some people are upset anyway and have begun deleting their Facebook accounts in response.
Scott Shackelford, the director of the Ostrom Workshop Program on Cybersecurity and Internet Governance at Indiana University, tells Money that certain users are worth more than others to Facebook — people with lots of friends, for example, have a bigger network and therefore provide more opportunities — but if the #DeleteFacebook movement gains enough steam, it could potentially hurt the company’s bottom line.
Shackelford compared it to Snapchat, which saw share prices sink after it unveiled an unpopular update and made an enemy of Rihanna when it approved a domestic violence-related ad.
“It can add up, particularly when more influential people start to give [the service] up,” Shackelford added.
In lieu of deleting their profiles entirely, wary Facebook users can check their privacy settings. But Shackelford warned that it’s difficult to recall your data once it’s out there.
“Ultimately, anything you post online is written in ink, and there’s really no way around that,” he said. “The information you’re putting out there really is incredibly valuable.”