Everything I didn’t know I was sharing with Facebook
Eight years ago, at the Crunchie awards (TechCrunch’s awards, not a competition dedicated to honeycomb chocolate bars) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said something quite revealing: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
If this week’s backlash to the fact that Facebook has been storing call and text logs is anything to go by, perhaps it was less comfort, and more ignorance. As people discomforted by the Cambridge Analytica revelations move to delete their Facebook accounts, the full extent of what Facebook knows about them is only just coming to light.
Channeling my inner Mark Zuckerberg, I’m going to be as open with you as I am with Facebook. In the spirit of breaking Facebook’s advertising monopoly over me, I’m going to share it with you too – but please, if you’re planning to advertise at me based on this article, do drop me a couple of pence for the lead.
You don’t have to delete Facebook to get this information – Facebook makes it very easy to dig into the data yourself. So, what does Facebook know about me?
A treasure trove of data
When you request your data, the Facebook elves in Silicon Valley head out to the warehouse and package it up all nicely for you. This took about half an hour for me, but when it was ready a link was emailed straight to me: the file came to a fairly slim 106mb – but I don’t really use Facebook very much.
Opening it up creates a sprawl of folders and subfolders, all accessible via an HTML file at the top. This is what I found:
Facebook remembers every name you’ve ever had
I have always been Alan Martin, except for 16 brief minutes on Friday 22 October 2010 when I became Alien Martian. That day I learned a valuable lesson about trusting your so-called friends with an unlocked computer.
Facebook remembers this change of identity, and the information still appears on my permanent record, which must really confuse the folks at Cambridge Analytica.
Facebook is ready to return all your photos (but not necessarily all the pictures of you)
Every picture you’ve ever uploaded to Facebook is in the archive. For me that was a walk down memory lane, featuring a bird grooming session…
…a friendly chat with a horse…
…and the 90 minutes of happiness before QPR robbed Derby County at Wembley in 2013.
I was in Tenerife at the time, hence the elaborate cocktail, and the attached metadata proves it, with a latitude and longitude of the bar which served that delightful drink on the day my footballing spirit died.
This folder doesn’t contain photos taken *of* you by other people. I’d guess this is Facebook’s way of ensuring it doesn’t break copyright laws – photographs belong to the person who took the snap, and if you’ve uploaded it, that’s probably you.
Facebook remembers every party you’ve ever been to (or said you were going to)
On 15 August 2009, I attended a house party in Reading. This fact is likely lost to history, and if I can’t remember it, I doubt the other guests can state with confidence whether I was there or not. Facebook remembers though. Or maybe I just said I was attending and didn’t go – that sounds like the kind of thing somebody might do.
Events don’t provide anything other than the date, an approximate address and the title – which is usually unhelpful for recall, given they tend to be called things like “My birthday”. Still, you’d imagine there’s an algorithm in place to tell which friends you’re more likely to willingly hang out with, and which ones you’re mysteriously never around for.
Every Messenger conversation you’ve ever had is here
In the archive, there is a folder called “Messages”. This contains every Messenger conversation you’ve ever had with anyone – and in some cases, even conversations you haven’t started yet (I assume it creates a blank document every time you get one of those “your friend X has joined Messenger – send them a message now” notifications).
This also includes brands messaging you. Me and the Honey Monster go way back, as you can see.
I’m not going to give you the full rundown of all 159 files created in the last decade, but in my brief scan I discovered that I’d never eaten an enchilada at the age of 27. Unless that was a typo for “echidna,” you do have to wonder what I was doing with the first quarter century of my life.
Facebook hasn’t been tracking my calls and texts, but it might track yours
Some users have found their contact history includes a list of phone numbers texted and called. My page here is blank, but then I’ve never given Android permission to share that information.
Still, I can’t be too smug here because…
Facebook remembers every film you watched and every song you played
Caveat: it only does this if you’re stupid enough to let it. Counter caveat: it appears I am stupid enough to let it.
As such, I’ve found films I don’t particularly like in my list of film preferences on Facebook. There’s also shows I definitely have never watched The reason for this? I have Netflix connected to Facebook, and my girlfriend used to use it before getting her own subaccount. I managed to figure this out because it listed a (quite interesting) docudrama about Hitler that I watched in 2014.
It is no longer on Netflix, but Facebook remembers it. And now so do I. When Netflix shares television programme info, it also shares a short TV guide style summary of the episode involved. POP QUIZ: What show is this describing? Because I sure as hell don’t remember.
The same applies to my Spotify listens, so I can tell you that on Sunday 25 October 2015 I listened to Rebel Yell by Billy Idol. Apparently, Spotify also told my friends this, so it only seems fair that you know too.
My ad profile is fascinating (but very patchy)
You would have thought that all this data would provide insights to cover me in advertising so targeted that I would be just constantly spending. Well, it’s true that Facebook keeps a list of ads you’ve interacted with:
No, I don’t know what the meowing hamster ad is about either. Also, I’m pretty sure at least one of those was an Instagram advert, so there seems to be some data sharing going on.
This presumably informs ads you’ll be served in future, along with your list of liked pages. The data dump doesn’t reveal this, but other places offer insights. Using ProPublica’s Chrome plugin, I was able to see that Facebook has some strange beliefs at what makes me tick:
Either Facebook knows me better than myself, or the company’s reputation has been a touch exaggerated.
That said, it has still picked up on some useful trends. I like politics. I like board games. I like food that’s bad for me – which is also why I like running and fitness. To be clear, this allows for advertising way more targeted that television or a billboard, but it’s still a bit too vague for me to be truly creeped out.
I have uploaded six videos.
Half of those involve my two cats. This is why we’re not friends on Facebook.
Interestingly, one of the others was this, which is still brilliant and worth watching three years after I uploaded it to Alphr’s Facebook page. Which is more than can be said about the cat videos.
I have been poked three times, by three different people
This is not a euphemism.
Facebook remembers every cruel rejection
At the risk of sounding like Alan Partridge, I have 171 friends. Facebook knows this, obviously, but it also knows the time and date we became friends on Facebook – and are you really friends with someone until they’re added to your digital rolodex?
It’s pretty obvious why Facebook keeps this information, if you’ve ever received a “friend anniversary” celebration, but it’s still a little unnerving to see your life measured out in this way.
As well as listing every friend-making success story, Facebook also lists every time you ignored a request from someone else (no I’m not adding your dog as a friend) and every time somebody cruelly ignores your extended hand of friendship (oh, it’s like that is it Anna?)
For advertising purposes (presumably), Facebook also categorises the date you added them with your time of life. For me, these all come under the umbrella of “established adult life” for what it’s worth.
Clearly it wasn’t paying too much attention to my Messenger conversations then…
I know where you logged in last summer
The security page is just daunting. In it, you’ll find a full list of your active settings, complete with dates, IP address, browser and operating system. Most log-in data seems to go back just as far as last summer, though there are a few exceptions, with notes provided for important changes – updating the password, changing your profile picture or a name change.
How to find this out for yourself
This is the kind of information you can expect to find in your file – but bear in mind I’m what you’d call a light user. I passively use Facebook once or twice a day, but very rarely post anything or comment. If I didn’t need an account for successive jobs, I likely that I still wouldn’t have an account.
With that in mind, here’s how to get your own file.