What Facebook knows about me (and you)

This week (March 2018) there has been a lot written about Facebook, the data it collects, the data it ‘sells’ and the data available to developers, marketers, advertisers, etc. I’ll not go into it here but you may want to read these posts to get the general idea, if you don’t already, why everyone is suddenly worried about their Facebook data – here and here and here and here. There are more. Many more. It won’t take long if you want to find more.

I’ve tried, very half-heartedly and without any success, to delete Facebook from my life before. I’ve gone as far as deleting the Facebook apps from all my devices and only use it through a browser interface now on one device. I know this was only a token gesture to take back control of the data I transmit to Facebook and ‘associates’. I try really hard to ignore the quiz and adverts, I pass over the standard ‘copy this to your wall if you …’ chain-statuses, I avoid commenting or ‘liking’ statuses when friends and family post updates saying ‘having a lovely time in …’ when I know it’s advertising their homes as empty for the next week or so.

I am careful what I do share, I don’t say when I’m away or post anything about where I am when I am away, I don’t check-in to places anymore (I used to enjoy Foursquare and Instagram, they’re both history to me now) and I don’t share anything personal. Even saying this, Facebook has algorithms that can take what I do post, and the data I’m transmitting without even knowing it, and build a profile of me based on this and past behaviour. The scary bit is it also knows a lot about all my other online behaviour through my devices and browser, even if I’m not on or been near Facebook for days. 

So, I’ve downloaded my Facebook data archive to see what they have. This will be interesting … I hope it won’t be embarrassing? Click To Tweet

So, I’ve downloaded my Facebook data archive to see what they have. This will be interesting … I hope it won’t be as embarrassing as it was for Jon Porter? For the record, it’s 230mb of data from over 11 years on Facebook. While I look over the data I will have to remember that privacy and settings were different back then, and what I allowed Facebook to do has changed as I’ve grown up (and the platform itself has grown too).

First things first. Once you’ve download your archive you have to unzip it. Once unzipped you’ll have a main ‘index.html’ page and several folders. Open the file in a browser and, well, off you go.

Facebook archive

And here it all is … friends, deleted/un-friended friends, ignored friends, messages, status updates, photos, videos, ad history, which advertisers have my contact info, ad topics, apps, etc. I think it’s fair to say, on looking through this, that this is all based on the current settings (certainly for apps) as there is quite a bit that historically I know to be different. 

Scare #1

What is scary is actually nothing about me, it’t what it knows about you! Or rather, what it knows about me through someone else’s account that somehow I’ve interacted with or been linked to. It’s not even about friends or friends-of-friends. In my archive is mentions to other people who I’ve interacted with over time. I would love to see what this is like for someone who hasn’t locked down their profile and privacy settings as a lot of this looks like it would link elsewhere, to other profiles, etc. 

Scare #2

Even without knowing it, but on some level I guess I did, I was sharing my location. I turned all settings to private and no location sharing ages ago, but it can still take the geolocation data in a photo and use that to plot where I am. Under the ‘security’ page there are lots and lots of IP address from where I’ve logged in, including device, browser time, etc. Not a surprise really, knowing what I do about Facebook already, but still a bit of a shock to see it all listed like that!

If we link this (and this is my own interpretation here based on articles and developments elsewhere in the ‘internet’, to programmes, apps and algorithms) Facebook can take my photo and work out where it was taken, who is in it (even without tagging them) and make assumptions based on it. Lots of photos in the countryside … adverts for hiking, walking, outdoors equipment. Photos of London … adverts or ‘stories’ for London hotels or restaurants. I rarely tag people in my photos so Facebook wont be able to cross-pollenate it’s data that way, but who’s to say what they’re working on behind the scenes?

Scare #3

Data on each photo has the IP address it was loaded using as well as the metadata from the photo file itself .. including ISO speed, exposure, latitude and longitude. Everything there to identify where I am. Even the most careful of us can still be caught out like this is we’re not careful. What I can see is that, for some photos, where I’ve used an app like PhotoShop Express or Prisma, much of this data is stripped. This is good, but often the lat/long coordinates are still there as well as the IP Address. All pointing to where I was. Example below I’m happy to share as it was Barcelona airport on the way back from a work trip.

Scare #4

Messages I’ve sent or received are there in the download too. I can’t quite figure the order out as it doesn’t look to be all of them, certainly my most recent ones aren’t there. It was a surprise to read the one at the top of the list as I don’t remember ever seeing it before. It was from a friend of a friends trying to find each other again. 

Scare #5

UPDATED – This doesn’t apply to me as I never allowed Facebook to access my phone contacts (thankfully), but for those of you who have this is especially relevant to you … 


Scared yet? You should be! This is the power of the data. Despite whatever security or privacy settings you have on your account, someone else could be jeopardising your privacy without your consent or knowledge.

Well …?

All in all this wasn’t the big massive scare I was maybe waiting for or been told to expect by the media, but it’s still an eye opener on the massive amount of data I’ve shared willingly over the years. In isolation this data isn’t really outstanding … but link my profile to the profiles of my friends you’ll get a bigger picture of me and my emotions (which advertisers would love to know about to target their ads to me in times of stress or need). Mix my data to that of others who like similar films or sports or go to the same events or watch the same films, you’ll get a different picture. You get the picture now? This is why 50 million profiles is a big deal!

The scare will probably come in the next few weeks or months when we get to hear more about what goes on with this data in the Facebook data centres. Processing, cross-checking and tagging, etc. through friend lists, photos, locations, likes, messages, adverts clicked, etc. This is where the likes of Cambridge Analytica make their mark, by taking the data and using it to profile an individual, a community, a nation, etc. This is where the power in the data lies, this is where we have been taken in recent years and where we ought to be very closely monitoring what is done with our data.

Will this stop me using Facebook? No. Not yet anyway. I’ve always been wary of anything free and what I share openly or privately. I have thought about deleting my profile and account for a few years and will probably continue to procrastinate a while longer. It might be different if I wasn’t already aware and careful of sharing too much online, if my privacy wasn’t already set quite high. 

Will this stop others using Facebook? No doubt about it, it seems many are shelving their accounts in droves, but will it affect the network in general? What kind of volume would Facebook consider enough to warrant worrying about? Many more millions than we think would be my guess. While there’s talk about ‘the end of facebook’ I think as a company and social platform it’ll continue onwards and will recover. Many of us, me included, will never trust them again, like we haven’t really up until now, and will be even more careful than before. But for many many many more they will carry on regardless or even in spite of the Cambridge Analytica expose.

As part of my previous work with students and their use of social media I used to ask them “when was the last time you Googled yourself?” Perhaps that’s too old now (but still relevant), perhaps we should be asking ourselves “when was the last time you reviewed you social posting history?”

'When was the last time you Googled yourself?' is old news. We should be asking 'when was the last time you reviewed you social posting history?' Click To Tweet

Image source: Kārlis Dambrāns (CC BY 2.0)