The big story of the last few weeks has been voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica's unauthorised transfer (read theft) of data on 50 million Facebook users to create about 30 million profiles on US voters, which they allegedly then used to target specific groups in 2016 US presidential election.
This has led to the prominent #deletefacebook campaign, which has wiped $100bn off Facebook's shares at the time of writing. If you're probably unsure about what's going on, how much data Facebook has on you, and whether you should delete your Facebook account, read on!
Can we trust Facebook?
Arguably, yes. Facebook really want you to keep your account, and going forward they're going to do everything they can to restore trust, even if it costs them money. Because if Facebook starts losing a significant number of users then it's really going to make their share price plummet.
At the moment their shares have fallen to levels from last summer. But they've been climbing steadily for over five years so it's not a massive issue financially. Yet.
There's no evidence that Facebook has broken any laws, if they're guilty of anything it's poor security with user data. This is a serious failing, but the really bad guys here are Cambridge Analytica: they signed an agreement with Facebook about how they were going to use the data they collected, which clearly states that they're supposed to delete it immediately after using it. Instead, they transferred it to a private database.
As soon as Facebook found out in 2015, they asked Cambridge Analytica to delete all the data but maybe didn't go far enough to verify that it had been removed. Facebook then changed all their systems so that app developers are no longer able to get information in this way.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg takes the protection of the Facebook community seriously and made it his personal goal for 2018 to "focus on fixing these important issues". This was before it was known that Cambridge Analytica had misused data. Given the resulting bad press, #deleteFacebook campaign and slump in stock value, Mr Zuckerberg will no doubt be doubling down on his resolution.
What data does Facebook hold on me?
This is fairly easy to answer, and we'd definitely recommend viewing because it contained some surprises for us!
To download a copy of your data:
- Log into Facebook on your computer and go to Settings
- Click the Download a copy of your Facebook data link at the bottom of the page
- On the next page, click the big green Download Archive button
- It'll take a few hours for them to assemble your data, depending on how active you are
- You'll get an email with a link to download the data
- Download and unzip it onto your computer, and open the index.htm file to view your data
This will open up a web page of your data. On the left side under your photo are the different types of data they hold about you.
What's in the archive depends on what you've been doing and what you may have inadvertently allowed them to gather. For example, Mat's contains mobile numbers of all his contacts, through inadvertent consent at some point in the past.
It'll contain all the Messenger conversations with everyone you've ever talked to, and all the IP addresses that you've ever logged into Facebook from. That's a little creepy but we can understand why it's useful for security for them.
The really interesting part is the Ads section. This lists all of the topics that Facebook has assigned to you for advertising purposes - topics it thinks are relevant to you. Mat's includes some which are understandable: Coffee, Web design, Photography, Movies and Swimming. Some of the others are bizarre or just plain wrong: Ice, Sports, Christian Social People's Party and most wrong of all: Republican Party (United States).
Download yours and let us what you find!
Should I delete my Facebook account?
This is a really hard question, and it comes down to how useful you think Facebook is in the first place.
Deleting your account may feel like an appropriate response to this whole mess, but think about these questions before you delete it:
- How am I going to keep in touch with Facebook friends after I've deleted it?
This is the big one, especially for us. Living in Spain we use Facebook a lot to keep in touch with friends back in the UK, and although we'd love to have weekly phone calls with everyone on our friend lists, it's just not going to happen.
- How many other websites do I use Facebook to log into?
This is a really important question. Go to the App Settings page and look at how many other accounts you currently use Facebook to log into. Mat had 38 different websites, and a friend had over 150! If you're going to delete Facebook then you'll need to disconnect all these first, otherwise you may lose access to those websites. Even if you're not going to delete it, it's probably a good idea to start disconnecting these accounts now, because those websites have access to a reasonable amount of your Facebook profile data.
- Is Facebook still useful to me for work / events / social groups?
Facebook has managed to worm their way into every aspect of our lives, and it's going to make your life a lot harder if you delete it.
On the other side of the argument, the main question is: how much do you value your privacy? Some estimates say that Facebook makes $20 out of your data each year. Are you happy to agree to that?
This isn't going to be the last time that Facebook has data privacy issues, and you could avoid being part of them by deleting your account now.
What about other websites / apps?
And finally, we reach the most important question.
On the Danny in the Valley podcast last week Antonio Garcia Marquez, former Facebook executive, said: "I guarantee you that half of the apps on your phone are probably breaking the terms of service and misusing your data." This is not just a Facebook problem, and so deleting your Facebook account isn't going to fix this.
What happens when we discover that Amazon, or Apple, or Google are also misusing your data or selling it to someone else who's doing that? Are you going to delete your online presence entirely and go and live in a cave?
Of course not, and deleting your Facebook account might not achieve anything beyond creating inconvenience and problems for you.
We need serious punishment for companies that don't take our privacy seriously, and we need tools that give us greater control over our privacy online.
The upcoming EU GDPR changes and Google's push to run the entire web over a secure connection are a step in the right direction, but there are tools you can use and campaigns you can join to keep pushing this forward:
- Check out your Ad settings on Facebook
- PersonalData.io runs a number of campaigns about finding out what data companies hold on you, although they seem to overwhelmed a little at the moment
- Firefox has just released an extension for their browser that allows you more control over Facebook's use of your data
- ProPublica has created a tool to monitor political adverts online to make sure they don't break rules
- Ghostery is a browser extension that gives you more control over your online privacy
Let us know if you know any more tools or campaigns we should feature.