Here's how quickly Facebook rebuilt its profile on me

I decided to start fresh and reboot my Facebook profile. It didn't take long for companies to target me with ads.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
5 min read
/ Getty Images

Facebook got to know me in just two months.

Like, really got to know me.

I deleted my decade-old Facebook page in March, purging more than 10 years of bad high school posts and college blunders. But I still needed to be on Facebook, so I created a new one the same day.

The motivation to start fresh -- or even leave Facebook altogether -- isn't unique. High-profile figures such as Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell disconnected from the social network after the #DeleteFacebook movement picked up momentum in the wake of  Facebook's Cambridge Analytica data harvesting scandal. But ultimately, the call to quit didn't catch on, as Facebook continued to gain more users even after the scandal.

Watch this: Zuckerberg unveils 'clear history' software tool

"I don't think there has been any meaningful impact we've observed," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told journalists in April.

Despite the outrage over Cambridge Analytica using Facebook to gather data on 87 million people without their permission, the social network proved to be too entrenched in users' digital lives for them to ditch it. People who suggested that you "just delete your Facebook" didn't take into account the many communities, friends and family that people can only contact through Facebook.

While 84 percent of people had concerns with Facebook collecting data, nearly half of them said they wouldn't change how they use the social network because of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, according to a survey from the investment firm Raymond James.

Which takes me back to my Facebook reboot. Since deleting my account wasn't an option, a new, more smartly run profile would be the next best thing.

Or so I thought.

Enlarge Image

The privacy settings on my new profile didn't prevent advertisers from finding me.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Starting over

If I had to be on Facebook, I figured I should do it on my own terms.

My first profile was a massive mess. Apps like "Which That 70s Show character are you?" had data on me, while a naive, younger version of myself gave Facebook everything it needed to target ads to me: where I work, where I went to school, where I live, how old I am, what music I liked, where I ate -- Facebook probably knew me better than my parents did.

Sometimes, you've messed up something so badly you just need to completely start over. I deleted that profile with no hesitation and created a new one with less data.

Of course, had I waited a few months, I probably wouldn't have needed to bother. Facebook announced a "clear history" tool in May that allows you to wipe out all the information the company collected on you, which would have accomplished the same goal. But this was March, and I was itching for a clean slate.

Facebook said that data from your older profile won't follow you to a new one. "If you delete your Facebook account, we will no longer deliver ads to you based off interests from your on- and off-FB activities," the company said in March.

With the new profile -- hi, alfredng58173! -- I promised I'd be smarter. I wouldn't post on my profile, I would only have one photo, I wouldn't like any pages or profiles, and I'd keep my friends circle small (my editor is still waiting to join). The first thing I did was head to the privacy setting to turn off ad targeting, limit activity logs and deactivate facial recognition and location tracking.

The only thing I would use Facebook for was messaging two groups I still keep in contact with, one of which I needed to post in weekly to get in a dance studio.

It turns out that keeping a low profile won't stop Facebook from collecting data on me for targeted advertising.

Facebook's at it again

I made a habit of downloading my Facebook data once a month since I created the new profile.

In just two months, the file size of my profile grew 240 times. By the first month, in April, Facebook had already created an "About You" for me, even though I didn't post a single thing. The small group of friends I added was enough for them to make some general assumptions.

Under "About You," Facebook identified me in the "Starting Adult Life" stage, because of my friends on Facebook. I have fewer than 60 friends on Facebook, and it was enough for the social network to figure that out.

The rest of my Facebook data dump looked relatively clean: It had all the posts and messages I had started writing for the groups I absolutely needed to be on, but other than that, my privacy settings worked. The company had no information on apps and websites I've used or ads I've interacted with, no location history, and nothing from third-party trackers on pages I've visited.

It's the "Ads" section that's been growing each month. While Facebook doesn't have any data on ads that I've interacted with or seen, it does show me advertisers who run ads using contact lists with my information on it. This section matches up my email address and phone number on Facebook with an advertiser's database, which could have my contact information for any number of reasons. 

A credit card loyalty program could share my contact information with hotels and airlines to target traveling ads to me on Facebook, even though I never liked any travel content, for example. Facebook said it requires advertisers to have proper permission to use contact information data.

 Under that contacts category, the list is only getting larger.


Facebook lists these companies under advertisers I've interacted with. I have no idea what over half of these pages are, or why they have my contact information. 

Alfred Ng/CNET

From April 30 to May 30, it more than quadrupled, from 14 advertisers to 65 advertisers who ran ads based on my contact information. And while some of them were from companies that I've actually interacted with, like Spotify and eBay, many of them were from groups I've never even heard of.

I still don't know why advertisers from "The Honey Baked Ham Company" or "The Bugzy Malone Show" had my contact information in May, but not during April. Facebook couldn't explain why I was on any specific advertiser's lists. 

I slipped up with my new profile's contact information, which advertisers on Facebook could access. I originally wanted to keep my phone number off, but Facebook's two-factor authentication locked me out of the website when I removed my phone number.

On May 23, Facebook announced that you would no longer need a phone number for two-factor authentication, so I've since removed it.

As for my email address, I signed up with a different email address that Facebook never had, but it had been caught up in other company's databases. Even if I used Facebook's clear history tool, it would only delete all my data that Facebook has -- not what advertisers have in their databases, the company said.

In just two months, more than 60 companies had access to my contact information through Facebook. I may have deleted 10 years' worth of data, but it hasn't stopped the social network from rebuilding a profile almost immediately.

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