This week I finally grasped that Facebook has been screwing me. Of course I'd known all along that the company had a perverse amount of information and data about me. Yet, like millions of others, until the Cambridge Analytica (CA) story broke I didn't really think through the sinister and everyday consequences of it.
If you've managed to miss the news, CA, a shady data analytics firm financed by Robert Mercer, used personal information harvested from more than 50 million Facebook profiles to build a system that could target U.S. voters with highly personalized political advertisements based on their psychological profile. It claims to have swung the election in Donald Trump's favor.
Now, you may be thinking, well I didn't vote for Trump anyway so what does this have to do with me? Or, I have nothing to hide so what does it matter if Facebook and third-party companies have my data? If so, I'd recommend downloading a copy of the data Facebook holds about you right away (here's how to do it).
That's what I did this week, and, for many reasons, it was a completely horrifying experience.
After submitting the request and waiting roughly an hour (other users have reported waiting times anywhere between 10 minutes and 24 hours) for Facebook to ping me the download link, I opened up a 441mb zip file to find roughly my entire digital life spread out before me across hundreds of folders and files.
I'd like to say I headed straight for the Ads tab to see how corporate overlords are targeting me to sell their products, but instead I found myself in the juicy stuff: the Messages tab. It's a huge, sprawling list of every single conversation you've ever had on Facebook. I spun the scroller on my mouse and, lo and behold, landed almost right on the name of an ex-girlfriend. Inside there was an excruciatingly cringeworthy play-by-play account of the day we broke up.
Inside another entry, listed as "Facebook User," (Facebook presumably uses this moniker when the person in question is no longer a user) I found a conversation with a since deceased relative. In another there was a message from a boss saying I was fired from my job at the local pub for failing to turn up for a New Year's Eve shift (lolz now, but pretty shameful when I first received it.)
The problem is that these were conversations I had deleted and thought were gone forever. Unfortunately I was wrong. Worse still, these findings (which could have been a lot worse had I owned an Android device), though pretty awful to revisit now all these years later, are nothing compared to other stuff elsewhere in the file.
Under the Ads section, you can see that Facebook stores information not just pertaining to what you might be interested in based off other things you've liked previously, but also what you and your friends talk about. Some of the topics listed for me were unsurprising; "Barnsley F.C." (I'm a lifelong Tykes supporter), "Berlin" (That's where I live), and "Kanye West" (I'm an editor at Highsnobiety, after all). Others were mystifying: "Bill Cosby," "Intelligent Dance Music," and "Ethnic Groups."
The strangest one, however, was "Offenbach am Main." This is a small city located just east of Frankfurt that I happened to pass through on a train a couple of weeks ago. I'm absolutely positive I have never searched for, or liked, anything to do with this city within Facebook or elsewhere online. Well, I did find it strange, until I learned that the network also stores every time you log in to Facebook, where you logged in from, what time, and from what device.
Facebook also stores all the applications you’ve ever had connected to your Facebook account, and thus which apps potentially have all of your data too (that's how the data Cambridge Analytica used was acquired). Shortly after the CA news broke, I unpaired all apps (all 120 of them) from my account, so this section was completely empty in my file.
Others online, however, have pointed out that the installation of apps like Tinder allow Facebook to guess that you're single no matter what you have written in your bio. This also means that if you're listed as "In a Relationship" yet have Tinder installed, Facebook knows you're potentially cheating.
Under the Contact Info tab, I found a list of every single contact not just on Facebook but the contacts book of my iPhone too. That means Facebook has my grandma's home and mobile number, despite never having had an account.
Even if you're doing nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, all of this still matters. The data it collects includes tracking where you are, what applications you have installed, when you use them, what you use them for, access to your cameras and microphones at any time, your contacts, your call history, the messages you send and receive, the games you play, your photos and videos, your music — the list goes on.
Now imagine how easy it is for a brand, organization, political entity— or really anybody with the means and money to get an advertisement into your newsfeed—to use this information to sell you a product, or change the way you think about something, or vote for a certain candidate. We're being manipulated with an ease and accuracy unseen ever before in advertising or political propaganda.
Next up; here are 15 documentaries on Netflix that will inspire you to be more creative.