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By Julia Glum
March 21, 2018
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on April 18, 2017.
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., speaks during the F8 Developers Conference in San Jose, California, on April 18, 2017.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg—Getty Images

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.”

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The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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