I Downloaded Some Of The Data Facebook Has On Me, And Rethought Everything

What you post can and will be used against you.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

Facebook has a startling amount of data on everyone who uses the social media platform. And we helped upload it. Last week, a whistleblower revealed that the data firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly harvested data on millions of Facebook users for a targeted political campaign to help President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. (Cambridge Analytica contends that the data was not part of its work for the Trump campaign.) Social media users are understandably wondering what kind of data Facebook has accumulated about them and how it is protecting that data.  

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Days before Wylie came forward, I had already begun work on a story (this story) about a little-known feature on Facebook that lets you download in a single .zip file some of the personal data that the platform stores. The discovery that Cambridge Analytica had managed to leverage Facebook's scale is undoubtedly shocking, but it's worth putting in context with the wealth of information the platform has collected about private individuals — myself included.

So here's how to download your Facebook data: I requested the file from Facebook by clicking a hyperlink titled "Download a copy of your Facebook data" in my General Settings page (linked here). And the next day, a .zip file with my name on it appeared in my inbox.

The hyperlink in my Facebook's settings where I requested a copy of my Facebook data. Facebook

As I opened the file on my computer, I considered the news over the last few days. How much data could Facebook be storing on me? How much had I willingly given up? 

Inside, I found a stunning collection of data Facebook has collected since my first day on the website in March of 2007. There was every private message I've ever sent or received, every author page, political page or sports page I've ever "liked," advertisements I'd clicked on and advertisers who had my contact information, my phone number, every email address I've ever had, past relationships, photos, videos and every event I've ever attended.

On some level, I knew, of course, that Facebook was storing some of this information. But it was strange to see it in file form. It felt almost as though I'd managed to sneak a peek at a spy's surreptitious report.

The folders included in my personal Facebook file. Facebook

One folder had a log of each time I had signed into my Facebook or opened Facebook on my phone (with IP addresses included). There was location data that tracked where I had been, events I had attended, and even comments I'd made on private groups.

One of the most stunning parts of this experiment was realizing just how much data I had willingly given up and how many private conversations I had chosen to broach on Facebook Messenger. If Cambridge Analytica (or any other organization) wanted to use Facebook profiles to target political ads, it wouldn't be hard. Scraping my statuses or the groups and pages I joined would almost instantly offer a profile of my political leanings and give any political campaign a roadmap on how to make their case to me. Or how to funnel disinformation towards me.

"We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles," Wylie told the Observer, contradicting Cambridge Analytica's later statement that it had never used the data it collected. "And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on." 

Part of the data Facebook sent me regarding advertisements. Facebook

One popular internet conspiracy is that Facebook is "listening" to your conversations. Users all over the world have documented instances where they were talking about something they needed — say, a new bicycle — and then when they logged onto Facebook there would be an ad for a bicycle company front and center.

Those stories prompted the Wall Street Journal to take a deep dive into Facebook's advertising system. Early in its report, the Wall Street Journal declares that Facebook was not, in fact, listening to you. But the momentary sense of relief quickly disappears when the real explanation is offered: the data Facebook has is so thorough and comprehensive that it is simply predicting what you are interested in and guessing what ads are a fit for you in real time.

More concerning than the data Facebook sent me might be the data that they didn't send, including data apps or advertisers collect when you sign up for them using your Facebook profile. According to The New York Times, Cambridge Analytica acquired the data through a personality quiz app designed by Aleksandr Kogan, a Cambridge University researcher. More than 300,000 users downloaded the app in 2014, but because of the way Facebook's security worked at the time, Kogan was reportedly able to access the data of those 300,000 users' friends, too. 

As Christopher Wylie shared his story with newspapers across the globe, there were immediate real-world repercussions. Facebook executives are being called to testify before Congress, Facebook stock shares have taken a dive, and a Facebook boycott began trending on Twitter.  

On Wednesday afternoon, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg finally addressed the Cambridge Analytica story for the first time. He pledged that Facebook had already updated its platform to prevent similar situations from happening again. He also laid out a series of steps Facebook was taking to help people secure their data going forward.

"This was a breach of trust between Kogan, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook," Zuckerberg said. "But it was also a breach of trust between Facebook and the people who share their data with us and expect us to protect it. We need to fix that."

While Facebook has shown a willingness to update how it handles its data, Zuckerberg's hope to "fix" what has happened seems optimistic. For millions of users, the data is already out — in the hands of third and probably fourth or fifth parties by now. In fact, anyone with some cash flow can go buy Facebook user data on the black market. This genie is not going back in the bottle.

For now, the best thing you can do is be mindful of what you post on Facebook and other social media platforms. Take a look at your privacy settings and go download your own Facebook data if you want to understand what the platform has on you.

And keep in mind that, at the end of the day, the only gatekeepers of our data we should trust are ourselves.

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