It’s easy to give away your personal information on the web without even realizing it. Big companies buy and sell your data all the time without you even knowing it, whether it’s based on the links you click or the products you research.
Facebook is known for having a particularly expansive knowledge of its users' preferences, demographics, and habits, which it uses to target very specific groups for advertising. If you’ve ever wondered why you see the particular ads you see on your Timeline, it’s relatively easy to find out who is targeting you, and if they have your contact info.
To find out which Facebook advertisers have your email address and phone number, you just have to download a file, as Vocativ’s Kevin Collier recently explained.
Facebook has allowed users to download archives of their information for a while, but what information you can see in that archive has changed over the years. While you could only download some profile information and status updates back in 2012, you can now look at a broader swath of data, like your mobile connectivity quality or the events you’ve gone to. As of last year, you can also see what data is used to show you ads.
Here’s how to look at it:
Pull up Facebook and go to your settings. At the bottom of your general settings page, click “download a copy of your Facebook data.” You’ll then get an email from Facebook with your archive data attached. Open that attachment, click on the folder called HTML, and then click the “ads.htm” file.
The topics and pages that have made their way into your advertising settings might surprise you. These are companies and organizations that already have your phone number or email address and have chosen to run a custom audience ad campaign on Facebook; seeing an advertiser's name on the list does not mean Facebook has given them your information.
Some of the advertisers with my contact information, of course, are easy to trace. I have an account with The New York Times and (no regrets) Domino’s Pizza. I’ve purchased things from the FSAstore.com and Target. It's reasonable that these companies might have my phone number, since I would have had to provide that for shipping purposes, even though I typically use a different email address for online shopping than for Facebook.
It's hard to figure out how some other advertisers are targeting me, though. TNT Drama must know how much Law & Order I watch, because it has my information. Warner Bros.—and subsequently DC Comics and the movie The Accountant—have my contact info, too. That could have come from Netflix, I'm guessing. But Podo, a Bluetooth camera that launched on Kickstarter last fall, also has my information, and I had never seen it before.
I know I’ve visited the website for Viking Ocean Cruises while researching a story for work, but have never knowingly given them my contact information. I don't use my work email on Facebook, and don't know why I would have given them my phone number. Nor do I know why AARP Black Community has my information, or indeed, why they would want to. (I’m 26 years old and white.)
And while I can see how donating to certain causes may have resulted in my information being shared across political campaigns, I didn’t realize how odd the dispersal of that information would seem. The 2016 Virginia state senate candidate Ryant Washington is targeting me. So is Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden of the U.S. Senate and the Democratic congressmen Jim Himes and Rick Larsen, of Connecticut and Washington, respectively. I’ve never lived in any of these states, but apparently I'm worth collecting information on nonetheless.
Facebook declined to respond to my email questioning why Attorney General Bob Ferguson might have my (and a colleague's) contact information, but congrats, Bob—I now know who you are.
If you want an easy way to see what topics Facebook is targeting you for advertising, you can also explore ProPublica’s Chrome extension, which flags the interests Facebook is telling advertisers you have. You can also use the Facebook archive ads section to see how many ads you've clicked, which is a fun walk down Internet History Memory Lane.