How did Facebook get my email address?

FacebookLast month I gave a talk to some ‘seniors’ about social media, particularly Facebook. Many of them are wary of using social media because of privacy concerns, and talking to them made me realise that there are a lot of misconceptions that make people more fearful than they need to be.

One that stands out involves requests from other people. Some of them had received friend requests from others, usually relatives, that arrived in the form of an email. These emails come from Facebook and so the recipients were automatically suspicious.

Facebook cannot get your email address. Only people that already know your email address can send you messages from Facebook. If you get an email from Facebook it is because someone who knows you used Facebook and has used the email address that they know is yours.

Finding Friends in Facebook

When your friend uses the Friend Finder in Facebook they are asked for temporary access to their email address book so that it can use the email addresses. It doesn’t keep them, so every time they use it they have to give permission and sign in with their email password all over again.

Facebook Friend Finder

They enter their email address and password, and Facebook looks through their email addresses and gives a list of all the addresses that have been used to join Facebook. They can select all of these, or just a few of them – it’s their choice – and then they can send them all a friend request, which the friends then have a choice about accepting.

Some of the people in their address books may not be friends. They may be acquaintances, tradespeople, teachers, or even relatives that you would not want to speak to on a day-to-day basis. The people in your address book are not necessarily people you would want to have a continuing social relationship with.

But if they left all of them selected then they will be sent a friend request.

Finding Friends who do not use Facebook

After they have dealt with the people in their address book that are already registered in Facebook they are then given the a list of the ones who are not. They can then send them those people an invitation to join Facebook, which sends each one of them an email.

I think it is these invitations that are causing concern for some people. They look like they have come from Facebook, which they have, but only because someone who knows you has chosen to send the invitation to you.

Again, they can choose to select only certain people, or leave everyone selected and send a message to everyone.

They can then use the address books in the other services listed, such as Skype and Windows Live Messenger, to find more friends, and the process starts all over again.

To preserve the privacy of my own friends I can’t show you what these screens look like. But there is nothing diabolical about this process.

If you receive an email from Facebook that asks you to be friends with someone, you can assume that it has come from that person directly, using Facebook. If the person is a friend or relative that you would like to stay in contact with then you have nothing to fear from joining Facebook as long as you immediately start off by changing some of the privacy settings. These are described in detail in my book Social Media for Family Historians.

You may find, after you join Facebook, that you have much more meaningful contact with these friends and relatives than you did before. That has been my experience. You can share news, photos and stories quickly and easily without having to print and post the photos.



  1. Hi Carole
    Good post, with nice clear explanation. I give a “Social Media for Family History” talk for my customers here in New Zealand. The biggest fear out there is the privacy issue.

    I think the media exposure that this issue has been given, have given people the impression that Facebook is bad, and that there is no way to protect yourself if you join.

    True, Facebook privacy settings were incredibly complicated to navigate, but they’ve always been there. Now they are getting easier and easier to manage. Social Media is such a wonderful tool if used wisely and correctly.

    And the media exposure has probably been what has pushed Facebook to make the privacy controls more user-friendly.

    And I totally agree with you about meaningful contact. As well as keeping in touch with friends and family, I am reconnecting with people I had lost touch with years ago; and I am also finding fellow family history researchers and finding relatives (and they are finding me).

    Facebook and Twitter are wonderful research tools in their own right!

  2. Carole Riley says

    Seonaid, your comment must have been on one of the emails I lost when my laptop died, and I apologise for not posting it until now!

  3. This is simply NOT true. Today I received an email requesting me to “friend” someone, and when I contacted that person he said that he hadn’t even been on Facebook in over a week. So how did they get me email address??

  4. Carole Riley says

    Kevin, it sounds like you got an email from someone ELSE suggesting that you become friends with this person, even though they hadn’t been on Facebook for over a week. It’s difficult to say for sure without seeing what you saw, but it had to have come from someone who already knew you and had your email address.

  5. Angela Sullivan says

    I am getting emails from people I don’t know who are telling me they got my email from Facebook after perusing my profile. My profile is locked down to the public so they see nothing but the bare minimum Facebook will not allow me to hide. How am I getting these emails to my Outlook account from complete strangers?

  6. Carole Riley says

    There are many ways, and they probably have nothing to do with Facebook at all. I get emails from people pretending to be banks that I never deal with. Just because they say they got your email from Facebook doesn’t mean that they did.

  7. Avon Kumar says

    I don’t have a facebook account and didn’t give them my email address. I don’t have any friends on facebook so how did they get my address? These are the messages I get. “People You May Know. Richard Miller, Reading, Pennsylvania. Go to Facebook. Find more friends.” I don’t have a facebook account and I don’t want one. I don’t know anybody who would even accidentally give facebook my email address! I don’t want any more correspondence from facebook unless it’s to tell me how they got my address and how they can delete it!