As the world’s biggest social network, Facebook can keep tabs on about a third of the global population. Whether you visit the social network daily (as more than 2 billion users do) or only log on to to check hyperlocal neighborhood groups, you should be aware of how much personal data you’re giving to the site and its parent company, Meta.
Facebook primarily uses everything it knows about you to craft more relevant targeted advertising. While some see this as uncomfortably intrusive, others accept the ads as the price they pay for the network’s free services and tools. Whatever you think about the ethics of this data collection, you should know what the company is learning about you—and how you can control the flow of information. While this guide can help, there’s only so much you can do to protect your privacy. If you really want to stop the company from mining your data, your best bet is to delete your Facebook account entirely.
Take a peek at your profile information
When you created your account, you entered basic background information, including your name and email address. The site also prompted you to fill out your location, work and education history, and friends and relatives currently on Facebook. But by observing your behavior on its network, the tech company has gathered a lot more information about you and your habits.
[Related: How to secure your Facebook account]
One quick way to see exactly what details Facebook knows about you—and limit who else can access them—is to visit the Your Facebook information page where Meta stores all that data. If you’d prefer to get there without a link, log into the site and follow these steps:
- Click your profile photo in the top right corner, then hit Settings & privacy, followed by Settings.
- The next page has several options for what you can do with your Facebook information, and you want the first one: Access profile information. Click View to see the data Meta has collected on you.
If you’re using the Facebook app, the steps are slightly different:
- Tap Menu in the bottom right, then the cog icon in the top right.
- Scroll down to the Your information heading and tap Access your information.
Both the website and the app will show you several categories of information that you can browse at your leisure, with recent activity displayed on top. What you see may vary depending on how much you use Facebook and what you do there, but we can give you an idea of what to expect.
- Your activity across Facebook: This will show you everything you’ve done on the social network, including posts, photos, activity you’re tagged in, and items you’ve sold on Facebook Marketplace.
- Personal information: Click here to find what Facebook knows about you, including your name, hobbies, relationship status, and employer.
- Connections: If you’d like to see your friends, followers, and requests you’ve sent and received, this is the category you need.
- Logged information: Here you’ll find information Facebook tracks about your activity, such as search history and your primary location.
- Security and login information: Where you’ve logged into Facebook, the devices you’ve used, and a history of every login and logout.
- Apps and websites off of Facebook: If you’ve connected other apps and websites to your Facebook account, you’ll find related data here.
- Preferences: Any actions you’ve taken to customize your account, perhaps to make it more useful and less toxic, will be in this category.
- Ads information: Whenever you interact with ads and advertisers on Facebook, that data is gathered here.
Check your Facebook ad preferences
Ironically, if you want to see the topics Meta thinks you enjoy, you won’t find it under “ads information.” Instead, select Logged information, then Ads interests to see what data Facebook uses to serve you advertisements. To stop the company from showing you ads based on any of these details, simply hit Remove next to any one of them.
This doesn’t require you to eliminate helpful details from your profile—you can share your relationship status, for example, but block ads that target you because of it. Facebook also allows you to dig deeper and learn more about ad preferences if you’re interested. But be careful, editing this data doesn’t benefit you—it benefits Meta, which will be able to target you more effectively.
Even if Facebook isn’t selling your information to advertisers, it could still be collecting it. In addition to making ads more relevant, the company can put your data—everything from the make and model of your phone to your most frequently used apps—to work fixing bugs and changing the social network. If you’re uncomfortable giving certain information to the social network, you can delete it from your profile entirely by going to your Facebook profile and selecting Edit profile to see what you can adjust. You can’t erase everything, but you can delete details such as where you work and go to school. You may also want to check out the More drop-down menu, where you can unfollow pages and manage other things you’ve liked along the way.
Download your Facebook information
You’ll never find everything Facebook knows—or thinks it knows—about you: Its secret algorithms make some educated assumptions about who you are based on your profile and your online activity. Facebook uses some of these assumptions to put people in groups that advertisers can target. It doesn’t really matter if these assumptions are entirely correct, as long as they make a more efficient advertising platform overall. In 2016, the Washington Post published a report on 98 different data points Facebook associates with your identity. These include data pulled from other companies and services—like the year you bought your car and the type of credit card you carry.
However, Facebook isn’t a completely closed black box. If you want to back up your data or save it for any reason, you can download all of it—just navigate to the Your Facebook information page (steps above), find Download profile information and click View next to it. You can select a date range, file format, and the quality of photos and other media in the final file.
There were once third-party tools that sought to offer this information and predict how Facebook might track and interpret your data, like the now-defunct website Stalkscan and Google Chrome extension Data Selfie. Now, you can just navigate to the Your Facebook Information page and click Download Your Information. You can select a date range, file format, and the quality of photos and other media included in that file. If you need a little more guidance, we have a full step-by-step within our story on how to delete your Facebook account.
Disable location and web tracking
Beyond the information you list on your profile and the pattern of your clicks (from likes to photo comments), it’s worth discussing two other big pieces of data in more detail: what Facebook knows about your location (determined via your smartphone) and your activity elsewhere on the internet.
[Related: How to stop websites from tracking you]
Letting Facebook’s mobile app know where you are has some upsides. It enables you to check into places, search for interesting spots nearby, and even find your friends more easily. It also tells Facebook where you tend to hang out, allowing the service to be more precise about the ads it shows you.
If this makes you uncomfortable, you can turn off its ability to keep tabs on your whereabouts. On Android phones, open Settings, tap Apps, find Facebook, hit Permissions, and select Location. On an iPhone, open Settings, tap Privacy & Security, then Location Services, find Facebook on the list of apps, and choose Never from the list of options that appear. If you don’t see Facebook under Location Services on your iPhone, you probably haven’t done anything in the app that might require your location. Even with these precautions, Facebook still can keep tabs on you—for example, it will take note when your friends tag you.
The simple reason why Facebook tracks you around the internet should be clear by now: better advertising. It can, for example, receive notifications when you spend time on specific webpages. In addition, the marketing platforms and sites to which Facebook sends your information can also give the social network their own carefully gleaned data about you (this is known as off-Facebook activity) What’s in this data? You can’t know exactly, beyond checking the Apps and websites off of Facebook information category we mentioned above.
To prevent Facebook from following you around the web, go to the Your Facebook information page (steps above), and click View next to Off-Facebook activity. You have three options:
Disconnect specific off-Facebook activity
Whether you’re on the web (Disconnect specific activity) or the mobile app (Select Activity to Disconnect), you’ll need to enter your password to proceed. You’ll see a list of brands and websites Facebook associates you with, and you can select the bubble (web) or Turn off (app) next to any of them to make your choices. Then hit Continue (web) or Turn Off Future Activity (app) to disconnect your Facebook account from the ones you’ve selected. Facebook will also provide a bunch of information about the process, including that Meta may still get information from the disconnected places, but it won’t be associated with your account.
Clear your off-Facebook history
Choose Clear previous activity (web) or Clear History (app), and you’ll be able to disconnect your off-Facebook activity history from your account. The data may still exist, but Meta says it won’t be linked to your account.
Manage future off-Facebook activity
There are two paths here: Connect future activity or Disconnect future activity. The former will allow Meta to keep gathering off-Facebook activity from certain places around the web and linking it to your account. The latter will prevent that, the company says. On the web, you’ve got to click the bubble next to your choice, but in the mobile app it’s a simple toggle switch.
open the Ads page, find Ads Settings from the menu on the left, and select Ads shown off of Facebook. Turn the toggle switch to Not Allowed. You can also visit the Digital Advertising Alliance and specifically opt out of numerous cross-site tracking programs, including the one run by Facebook.
These days, Facebook takes more care to explain what type of user data it collects, but you still can’t reclaim all of your information—that’s something you sacrifice when you sign up for the service. What you can do is be more aware of the types of information you reveal as you fill out your profile, react to your News Feed, and browse the web.
This story has been updated. It was originally published in 2017.