Facebook and other companies often buy data from data brokers in order to sell advertisers more targeted ad space on their platforms. Here's how to keep your data safe.

Dean Eyrams

Facebook knows a lot about you. I mean a lot...like your personal data.Some of you might wonder where Facebook gets its data. The answer is simple: data brokers.

A data broker collects your information from various sources and depending on the broker in question, this information could come from online, offline, or both. Whenever you make a purchase online or utilize your grocery store's loyalty card, the data on your purchases is collected by at least one company. Facebook buys this data and, letting advertisers use it to more specifically target ads towards you. Though Facebook says that the data brokers anonymize what they collect, the details can still be matched against your Facebook profile, building for Facebook and its advertisers a complete picture of who you are.

Creepy, right?

There's some good news here, though. You can opt-out of this sort of data collection at a lot of data brokers including the companies with which Facebook has partnered. And you can do this on top of using security features such as limiting ad tracking on devices like your iPhone and iPad.

Who has your data

Right now, Facebook lists seven companies as "Audience Data Providers" on its Marketing Partners Program. These are the companies that currently provide data to Facebook from around the world:

  • Acxiom
  • Epsilon
  • Experian
  • Oracle Data Cloud
  • Quantium
  • KBM Group
  • CCC Marketing

The bad news is that these companies are Facebook's partners for now. The social network sometimes rotates between different data providers, meaning that if another company starts providing its data to Facebook, you'll probably want to opt-out of them, as well.

How to remove your data from or stop tracking by Facebook's data providers

In your quest to wrench your data from the grips of these data brokers, know that it will take awhile. One thing in common with all of these companies is that you'll need to specify exactly what you want to be left out of any data collection, including your name, phone number, and any email addresses.

Here's how to suppress your data or prevent tracking at the Facebook data partners that provide such tools.

Acxiom

In addition to options for opting out of data collection by phone or mail, Acxiom provides an online form that you can fill out in order to prevent your data from being collected. Note that this opt-out form covers only one identity at a time.

  1. Head to https://isapps.acxiom.com/optout/optout.aspx in your browser or choice.
  2. Click the checkboxes under the type of information that you want to remove (mailing addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses) from Acxiom's data tracking under Acxiom Corporations's Online Opt-Out.
  3. Choose who is the subject of this data removal: yourself, someone over whom you have guardianship, or a deceased family member.
  4. Click the green + sign on the box that says Full Names.
  5. Add your name to the fields presented to you that you want to be removed from Acxiom's data tracking.
  6. Click Add to complete adding the name to the opt-out list.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 to add more names to the list, including nicknames, former names, and married names. This list, like the other three, accepts up to 10 entries.
  8. Click the green + sign on the box that says Phone numbers.
  9. Add a phone number that you want to be removed from tracking.
  10. Click Add to add the phone number to your opt-out list.
  11. Repeat steps 8-10 to add more numbers to your list.
  12. Click the green + sign on the box that says Email Addresses.
  13. Add an email address that you want to be removed from tracking.
  14. Click Add to add the email address to your opt-out list.
  15. Repeat steps 12-14 to add more email addresses to your list
  16. Click the green + sign on the box that says Mailing Addresses.
  17. Add a mailing address that you want to be removed from tracking.
  18. Click Add to add the mailing address to your opt-out list.
  19. Repeat steps 15-17 to add more mailing addresses to your list.
  20. Click Submit.
  21. Enter the email address to which you'd like Acxiom to send your opt-out confirmation.
  22. Click Submit. Acxiom will send you an email with a link you need to complete your opt-out request.
  23. Click the link in the email from Acxiom.
  24. Click Submit on the confirmation page.

The data you submitted on Axiom's forms should now be removed from Acxiom's marketing packages.

Epsilon

Contacting Epsilon to opt-out of its databases is all about direct mail. Epsilon doesn't actually own anything like email data, so all it can do is stop providing your name and mailing address to clients. In order to opt-out of mail from Epsilon clients, you'll need to send an opt-out request to optout@epsilon.com and provide your full name and address for the opt-out procedure.

Experian

Ugh, Experian. This company offers its databases to clients for several different purposes and, as a result, has seven different products from which you might want your information removed. Some of these can be opted-out of by a link, while others require you to email, mail, or call in your opt-out request. You can opt out of Experian's databases via link for the following services:

On each of these pages, there will be a link labeled "Click here" that you can click to opt-out of the tracking performed for these services. Unfortunately, all this opt-out process does is embed a cookie in your browser so that Experian's trackers around the web knows not to track you. This means that the opt-out is only for activity performed in your current browser on your current computer.

If you want Experian to suppress the information that it has collected on you and continues to collect across its direct mail, telemarketing, and online targeted advertising services, you'll need to send an email containing all of the relevant information that you want suppressed to optout@experian.com. If you're looking to opt out of Experian's email marketing databases, you'll need to send an email from the address you want to opt out to unsubscribeall@experian.com, which will remove you from the company's permission-based email database used by Experian and its partners.

Finally, opt out of pre-approved offers like credit cards and insurance mailing lists by calling 1-888-567-8688.

Oracle Data Cloud

Like Experian, Oracle offers an opt-out cookie for its Internet Based Advertising product. This will prevent Oracle tools from tracking your activity in your current browser on your current machine. Here's how to use it.

  1. Head to Oracle's Opt-Out Tool website.
  2. Click the big, orange Opt-Out button.

You can also opt-out of Oracle's offline marketing information collection. Follow these steps:

  1. Head to Oracle's offline opt-out website.
  2. Fill out the available form with your name, address, and email address.
  3. Click Submit.

Quantium

Quantium, compared to the rest of these companies, makes it fairly easy to opt-out of having your information shared with the company's partners, including Facebook. It provides a number of links that let you opt-out of being targeted by a Quantium partner's advertisers using Quantium-provided data.

For instance, opt out of Facebook ad targeting with these steps:

  1. Head to Quantium's Opt Out website
  2. Click Confirm under Facebook Targeted Advertising.

Like other services, this opt-out only applies to your current browser and computer, so you'll need to opt out again if and when you get a new machine or start using a new browser.

You can also click on the following links and follow the quick instructions to limit tracking in your browser on Quantium's partner sites:

KBM Group

Like some of the others, KBM offers a cookie-based opt-out solution for your current web browser. Follow these steps to activate it.

  1. Head over to the KBM Group Interactive Opt-Out website.
  2. Click the click here button on the line that begins. "To complete the opt-out process,".

If the opt-out it successful, you'll be taken to a screen that says so.

A quick note

These are by no means the only data brokers out there. Data collection and brokerage is a massive industry. If you'd like to try and opt out of data collection by more brokers, check out this list of companies, which also features links to their opt-out tools or instructions. Keep in mind that this list is a few years old, so some of its information might be out of date. But it's a good resource for getting started.

If all of this seems a bit confusing, that's probably because it's supposed to. These companies really don't want you opting out of their data collection because that's how they make money. The important thing is to keep slogging through it.

Something to be aware of as you complete these processes is that your data won't actually be removed from the databases these companies keep. They'll suppress it, and not send it to their marketing partners like Facebook, but they'll hang on to it to make sure that it a piece of your data hits their database again, it stays out of their marketing services.

Also yes, it does seem counterintuitive that getting these companies to suppress information they collect about you often involves sending them a lot of information about you.

It began with Tim Cook being interviewed by Kara Swisher and Chris Hayes, following Apple's education event in Chicago.

From Recode:

Cook made that point again today: "The truth is, we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We've elected not to do that."

Swisher posed a question for Cook: What would he do if he were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg? His answer: "I wouldn't be in this situation."

Mark Zuckerberg responded during a podcast with Ezra Klein.

From Vox:

You know, I find that argument, that if you're not paying that somehow we can't care about you, to be extremely glib and not at all aligned with the truth. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can't afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people.

That doesn't mean that we're not primarily focused on serving people. I think probably to the dissatisfaction of our sales team here, I make all of our decisions based on what's going to matter to our community and focus much less on the advertising side of the business.

But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, "There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less." And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.

I don't think at all that that means that we don't care about people. To the contrary, I think it's important that we don't all get Stockholm syndrome and let the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you. Because that sounds ridiculous to me.

Then, during Zuckerberg's testimony before the U.S. Senate, photographer Andy Harnik managed to grab a shot of his notes.

From Associated Press:

Tim Cook on biz model

  • Bezos: "Companies that work hard to charge you more and companies that work [hard to charge you] less."
  • Ay FB, we try hard to charge you less. In fact, we're free.
  • [On data, we're similar. When you install an app on your iPhone, you give it [access to] information, just like when you login to FB.
  • Lots of stories about apps misusing Apple data, never seen Apple notify people.
  • important you hold everyone to the same standard.

Where to begin?

No such thing as 'free-as-in-your-data'

Cook's comments, which came on the heels of an education event, are consistent with his and Apple's philosophies and policies going back years. Apple charges for hardware and some software and services, and uses that income to subsidize a much larger pool of software and services, including iOS, macOS, iWork, iLife, free apps on the App Store, the basic level of iCloud, iMessage, Apple News, and more.

When Cook says he wouldn't be in this situation, it's because he's chosen to work at, and continue to operate, a company whose business model allows it to have users that are also customers, and line up behind the privacy and security of those users-as-customers.

Zuckerberg's comments, which came in the midst of whatever the tech CEO equivalent of a celebrity contrition and redemption tour is, felt fresher and more raw. Almost angry. He goes as close as he possibly can to calling Tim Cook a liar without using that word. And it's ironic, given the utter lack of truth in Zuckerberg's comment.

Facebook isn't like Amazon. I won't delve into Amazon's sometimes predatory pricing strategies here, but in essence, it still charges you money for goods or services. Facebook charges you data and attention. And that's not charging anyone "less" at all — depending on your perspective, it's charging much, much more. It's charging something that not everyone may value but that is, in many ways, priceless.

Further, the implication that those who can't afford to pay in money should be grateful they can pay in data is insensitive at best, horrifying at worst.

In essence, Apple charges you for a meal. Facebook gives you a lobster dinner and then sits there, leering at you.

And that isn't "free". "Free-as-in-data-and-attention" isn't "free". Again, depending on your perspective, it's radically more expensive.

Fool me once

On the subject of user data, Apple and Apple developers have certainly made mistakes in the past. Location data, Path, Uber, and Facebook itself have all had incidents. Yet, in each case, Apple added protections, called CEOs to the carpet, and amped up the security of the platform. In other words, Apple worked hard not to make the same mistake repeatedly.

Facebook, on the other hand, has a history littered with incidents followed by apologies that ultimately led to very little change. That Zuckerberg is sitting before the U.S. Senate now shows how seriously he and Facebook have taken privacy up until now. Privacy theater would be a fair way to put it.

And people can tell. Over time, over incidents, the difference becomes apparent. It happened with Eric Schmidt at Google and it's happening with Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook: That subtle shift from when you think they're naive to when you realize they think you're gullible. From when you think they're not being candid to when you realize they think you're too dumb to know they're not being candid.

Data isn't a business model

The truth is, using data to provide services is completely separate from exploiting that data for advertising, marketing, or influence peddling. Using a stream of data for machine learning is completely separate from persisting and hoarding that data for other uses.

You can subsidize deeply personal services the way Facebook (or Google) does, absolutely. But you can also subsidize deeply personal services in other ways, including hardware profits, the way Apple does.

Zuckerberg's whataboutism notwithstanding, Apple and Tim Cook have been long on privacy for years. Even when it looked like people didn't care — that data in exchange for services was a great deal — Apple and Tim Cook believed that the sentiment would change. That it would have to.

What's happening with Facebook right now and the way Mark Zuckerberg is choosing to react to it sure makes it seem like they were right.

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