I know a lot of people in the security industry, and I know a lot of people who enjoy Facebook. However, there's not much overlap between these groups. As someone who's in both groups, I'm an oddity. Many security experts either always steered clear of the social network or are currently advocating deleting it. I closely follow security topics and products such as antivirus utilities, and I also use Facebook, but carefully. I don't see any need to delete my Facebook account. But now that Facebook has made it so easy to download everything the social network has about me, I went ahead with that process. Perusing the resulting archive, I ran into some surprises, both positive and otherwise.
I've known for years that with Facebook, I'm not the customer, I'm the product. I keep my profile private except to friends. I don't post a lot in my visible profile, and not all of what I display is true. For example, while it's true that I studied Existentialism in college, I'm not actually a Pastafarian; I have not been "touched by his noodly appendage." I never wildly click links that seem shady. And I maintain a security suite that warns if a dangerous link gets past my radar.
But being careful myself isn't enough. Sloppy security on the part of my friends can potentially make some of my information public. So I tightened up my settings to keep Facebook from sharing my data. I went all-out, choosing the option to totally disable the sharing platform. Facebook offered dire warnings about how doing so would disable my apps, and keep me from logging in using my Facebook credentials. I smiled and went ahead. Now I'm fine, right? Well, maybe.
Note that you'll have to supply your Facebook password twice during this process, because this is sensitive information. Facebook also warns that you should protect the downloaded data, as it contains sensitive material. Your best bet would be to encrypt the data when you're not actively studying it.
You start at the Profile page, with general information about you and your Facebook account. This includes the exact moment you started with Facebook (Thursday, June 28, 2007 at 8:15 a.m. PDT in my case) as well as your address (if you entered it), birthday, gender, hometown, and so on. It doesn't distinguish between public details and those you've made private.
Clicking the Friends link got me a list of all my Facebook friends, sorted from newest to oldest. No surprise there! But scrolling down farther, I found a lot more. It also lists: Sent Friend Requests, Received Friend Requests, Declined Friend Requests, and Removed Friends. That's right. Facebook knows everybody you've unfriended, and ever friend request you've denied, or ignored.
At the tail end of the list, I found a couple other minor categories. I have exactly one Followee, meaning there's one semi-public figure that I follow without actually being FB friends. You may have more. Facebook's analysis of my friend collection places me in the Friend Peer Group called "Established Adult Life." Why? Perhaps for advertising?
The Friends page makes sense, though it includes more information than I thought it would. But the Contact Info page totally mystifies me. It lists hundreds of people, in no apparent order, along with one, two, or three phone numbers. Who are these people, and where did they come from? The list even includes entries for people no longer living, some of them deceased before I ever joined Facebook.
I dumped this list into Excel as well, and checked off any that I might have actually called on the phone. That accounts for just 10 percent of the list. About 6 percent of the contacts appear twice, most with the same phone number. Almost all of the names seem at least vaguely familiar, but not through Facebook.
Every post I ever made on Facebook is here in the timeline. I don't know if it's even possible to go this far back within the Facebook user interface. If it were possible, it would take hours, maybe days, of scrolling down, down, down. I found the nearly ten-year-old posts fascinating. The post "feeling chilled after biking 10 miles in the rain Sunday to watch the Amgen riders start the first 100-mile ride" reminded me of the thrill of watching the opening of the first Amgen Tour of California bicycle race. And I was proud to remember my grown daughter's high-school success, Grand Prize in a regional animation contest.
Clicking Photos gets you a similar list, a timeline of every photo or album you ever posted. It includes the date for albums, and any comments, but not the text you shared along with the album. When you click through to the individual photos, you don't see the dates, unless the photo itself has comments. Facebook reports a raft of (to me) pointless information. Camera make and model. Orientation, width, and height. F-stop, ISO, and focal length. In my oldest photos, these are all the more useless because they're often either blank or zero. I couldn't figure out why some iPhone photos include a modicum of information, while others get nothing.
In my view, Facebook could handle this a lot better. Suppress the camera data except when requested. Include the date for any photo. And when I snap a photo and post it, include the text of the post with the photo.
The Facebook archive stores videos as 400 by 224 MP4 files; it doesn't link to the full-size video that you posted. When I launched one of those, I found that the sound worked fine, but the video itself just showed shifting bands of color. I tried a half-dozen videos, and the same thing happened with all of them.
Facebook exists to tempt you and other users with ads. Every time you click an ad, that's another data point for your profile. The first thing you see when you click the Ads link is a list of all the topics Facebook thinks interest you. In my case, the list runs to more than five dozen items. Some make sense: coffee, California, computer security, network security, journalism, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Others have me head-scratching, things like water, landform, watermelon, and Order of Interbeing (what?). But those are the topics that inform just what ads Facebook inflicts on my feed.
Facebook, this could be so much better! Give us a list of names, yes, but show the number of messages associated with each. Let us sort by name or by number of messages. When we open the list of messages for a given person, show them in oldest-to-newest order, and use some visual cue to show the start of each new conversation. Finally, let us search across all messages. Now that would be a useful list of messages!
If you haven't yet done it, scroll back to the top of this article and follow the instructions to download your own archive. Page through it, think about it, do your best to get past the poorly designed parts. The archive isn't just evidence for you of what Facebook has on you. You can also make it a useful resource, assuming it doesn't inspire you to simply delete Facebook.
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