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What Facebook really knows about you will leave you shook

Image: 123RF/Denis Ismagilov

I created my Facebook account on the 17 October, 2007, probably illicitly, on one of my junior school’s antiquated desktops.

It was a Wednesday, and I would have just turned 13. I had a hormonally-nourished inferiority complex, braces, a Motorola flip-phone, and absolutely no foundation in the basic tenets of online safety.

I can recall these details so vividly because, like millions of other Facebook users, the Cambridge Analytica saga has compelled me to find out exactly how much Facebook knows about me; and, as it transpires, the date of my registration is one of the many virtual footprints I didn’t know I’d left for posterity.

In case you didn’t know:

In 2014, approximately 270, 000 people took a personality quiz – a generic questionnaire of the sort that rewards you with a classification: you’re an ‘extrovert’, a ‘narcissist’, a ‘mediator.’ As it turns out, we’re all ‘dupes’.

The function of this duplicitous poll was to collect not only its participants’ personal data, but also that of their guileless Facebook friends. This was possible because, in order to access this census, participants first had to log on with their Facebook accounts and agree to give the application access to their Friends list, as well as to the material they’d ‘liked’.

Facebook professes to have believed that this research was being conducted for academic purposes; instead, it was sold to a political consultancy firm called Cambridge Analytica, which participated in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And because the 270, 000 participants exposed their Facebook friends as well, it’s possible that Cambridge Analytica took advantage of this data to bombard up to 87 million Facebook users – most of whom reside in the U.S. – with pro-Trump propaganda.

There are now serious concerns that the information siphoned from the innocuous personality quiz influenced the outcomes of both the Brexit referendum and Trump’s moronic crusade; concerns that have been amplified by virtue of the fact that Facebook unknowingly sold $1 million’s worth of advertising space to a company with connections to the Kremlin, which does little to assuage suspicions about Russia’s role in Trump’s victory.

What Facebook knows about you:

The political implications of the Cambridge Analytica scandal are obviously enormous, and this is a stark reminder that the digital can bleed into ‘reality’ in ways that we never anticipated. But for the man on the street, it’s equally disconcerting to realise just how much Facebook actually has on us. Actually, it seems to be disturbing the upper-crust, as well: Elon Musk, Cher, Jim Carey and Will Ferrell have all deleted their Facebook pages, and Facebook’s shares have plummeted 16% since the leak was publicized – Carey sold his stocks. 

I understand the exodus. Personally, I don’t want strangers to have untrammeled access to details about my sexual orientation, or my political affiliations; not because I am intent on hiding either, but because the ability to share or conceal this kind of information should be my prerogative; and for some users, the privacy of these details might be integral to their safety. Facebook: the familiar moniker assumes ominous, Orwellian overtones in this context. A book of names, and the people and places that link them: people you don’t know might know of you, and what you’re like, and what you like, and where to find you. It isn’t a pleasant prospect.

But while the data breach is unquestionably a sign that Facebook needs to revise its regulations, the fact remains that, in an age in which our online profiles constitute an important extension of our identities, the onus is on us to read the Terms and Conditions. It is possible – albeit somewhat disturbing – to uncover (and edit) a portion of the information Facebook’s gleaned from what you do on your newsfeed.

So I did.

Do this:

The first and easiest measure is to review your privacy and security settings. There is a discreet, downwards-pointing arrow on the right-hand side of your screen. If you click it, you’ll find ‘settings’ towards the bottom of the menu; explore these to ensure that your posts are limited to the audience of your choosing, and remove information that you’d prefer to keep discreet. If you’re paranoid, disable location and web tracking. This is familiar terrain for most Facebook users, barring the very geriatric.

But then: once you’ve found your way to ‘settings’, at the bottom of the list that will appear on the left, you will find a little tab called ‘Ads.’ Click on it. It’s interesting.

It will reveal what some of what Facebook knows about ‘Your interests’, ‘Advertisers you’ve interacted with’, and ‘Your information.’ ‘Your information’ determines the kinds of ads Facebook integrates into your Newsfeed. ‘Your interests’ are premised on some assumptions Facebook has made about you, based on things you’ve ‘liked’ or commented on in the past. You can edit these, and most are comically inaccurate.

But then there’s ‘Advertisers you’ve interacted with’, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the most edifying tier by far. It’s also the creepiest – it allows you to review the advertisers that appear on your feed because Facebook knows you’re on their customer list.

Accordingly, I now know that Facebook knows that I’ve used Uber Eats, and Taxify. It seems to know that I’m a Vodacom customer, and that I have a Netflix account. It also knows that I sometimes buy books on Amazon, and that I have a Clicks club card. My history of eyebrow-mangling at various branches of Sorbet hasn’t eluded it – and it hasn’t forgotten that I once downloaded a mindful breathing app, on impulse, late at night.

Now you’ll understand that there’s a self-sustaining network of information circulating about you: a network that you expand every time you create log-in details, or exchange your email address for a rewards card. Is the violation worth the 2-for-1s?

And this:

I’d never noticed it before, but at the bottom of the ‘General Settings’ page, there is a small, hyperlinked offer to ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data.’ If you take it up on its offer, and select ‘Download Archive’, it will ask for verification details and then spend a few minutes compiling a folder, which you’ll find in your downloads. Here’s what you’ll find:

Messages: A long list of exchanges, dating back, in my case, to 2009; chronicling awkward flirtations and confrontations and the slow maturation of my grammar. It’s uncanny, and somehow melancholy, too: I did feel violated, but I also felt nostalgic. I assume your reaction will be different if you’ve been using Facebook to titillate your mistress.

Photos: But you’re probably familiar with this portfolio; vanity elicits regular curation.

As well as: a truly pedantic record of all the ads and all the links you’ve clicked on, and all the apps you’ve installed using your Facebook login details – it definitely knows if you’ve used Tinder. It has a list of the contacts on your phone. It details all the events you’ve hosted or ostensibly attended. It knows when you’ve logged in, and out. There is a barely intelligible sub-sub-sub folder about its ability to recognise your face in photos.

All in all, it would take hours to wade through, if you’ve had Facebook for a while – and it left me feeling dirty, like an exhibitionist; like a lab rat; like a life reduced to the gormless hours I’d spent curating semblances online.

It’s a depressing and befuddling undertaking – but, as Orwell would have it, our ignorance is their strength.  

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