Technology

How I Blundered Into Protecting My Data From Facebook, Completely By Accident

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In any profession, there’s a degree of “Do as I say, not as I do.” A shocking number of doctors smoke like chimneys, diet gurus house the occasional Big Mac, and even the snobbiest film critic can be charmed by a bad movie. And so, I, a person who has spent years telling you about Facebook’s questionable practices, have had a personal Facebook for a solid decade. So it was with not a little trepidation that I downloaded my own information to see just what Facebook had on me, and discovered I had managed to blunder into largely protecting my own data by simply never handing it over in the first place.

Facebook is currently in hot water thanks to a massive data breach where right-wing data operation Cambridge Analytica got its hands on 50 million profiles in an attempt to influence the election. Mark Zuckerberg went into hiding for days and has since gone on an apology tour while dodging reporters and refusing comment. People are deeply upset, as they should be. So they’re looking at what dirt Facebook has on them and are stumbling over some nasty surprises, like how Facebook was logging user calls and text messages from Android phones for years. By the way, Facebook published a “fact check” of this that more or less admits they are totally doing this, but that it’s your fault for agreeing to this:

Call and text history logging is part of an opt-in feature for people using Messenger or Facebook Lite on Android. This helps you find and stay connected with the people you care about, and provides you with a better experience across Facebook…We introduced this feature for Android users a couple of years ago. Contact importers are fairly common among social apps and services as a way to more easily find the people you want to connect with.

Ah, the “everybody else does it!” defense. (That may not go over well when this scandal finally shakes out.)

So, I downloaded my file. If you’re morbidly curious, like me, just go to Facebook in a web browser, click the down arrow in the upper right-hand corner, click “Settings” and at the bottom of “General Account Settings” you will see a tiny link letting you download a copy of your Facebook data:

I should note here that I don’t believe for a second Facebook actually sent me the entire file they have on me. Even if they weren’t clear that they view everything you do as proprietary marketing data, Facebook had pretty thoroughly burned its bridges in that respect well before the entire Cambridge Analytica debacle unfolded. Still, I got a 42 MB file from them, fifteen minutes after I requested it. I opened it and found…

Nothing terribly invasive! I mean, it’s a bit invasive, but that’s really my own damn fault. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me to click a Like button. And honestly, some of it is hilariously baffling. Because I browsed the silly rompers of Getonfleek once, apparently it’s the only clothing label I like. And some of it is creepy, like Facebook’s custom facial recognition data.

But I didn’t find anything you couldn’t learn by visiting my Facebook page, really. At first I assumed that the embarrassing data had just been yanked to spare them more outraged emails. After some digging, though, I realized that instead, I’d just blundered into protecting some of my data. It turns out that I never uploaded my contacts to Facebook, from any phone that I’d owned. My general response to any app that asks for more data, especially data that other people share with me, is mockery and refusal.

I’d also long ago deleted Facebook, the app, off my phone, not because of some moral high ground, but because I found Facebook’s insistence every single feature of the site needed its own app to be completely obnoxious. Good thing, too, because, take a gander at the permissions for the Facebook app: They want to scrape your entire phone bare. I’m surprised they don’t ask for your genome while they’re at it.

And that appears to be what protected me. Not being an informed consumer, not studying the app permissions, not, to be frank, the kind of thing a grown stable adult, let alone a professional writer covering the technology industry, would do. I protected my Facebook data simply because I drew a line in the sand mostly to be an obstreperous ass to a group of people who wouldn’t remember my name if they ran me over with their Porsche Cayenne. If there’s a lesson to be had here, it’s simple: In the end, we control what we tell these sites. Once we give it to them, we can’t take it away. But if we never fork it over in the first place, they’re left assuming we run around in donut rompers.

Nor does this let Facebook off the hook. They chose to collect this data. They chose to bury what they were doing behind app permissions and terms of service agreements. Sure, everybody else is doing it (and that should give all of us pause,) but Facebook can’t complain it’s unjustly reaping the whirlwind. The company’s motto may as well have been “Move fast and break things,” and now they’re learning the hard way that they’re stepping on shards of glass.

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