How to find out what data Facebook has on you, and how to protect it.
In the previous two parts of this series, we looked at the "scary" parts of what type of information Facebook gathers about people and what they do with it. Today, we give you the light at the end of the tunnel and a few key ways to help protect yourself and your information.
Find out what info Facebook actually has on you
Fortunately, the most recent revelations have prompted Facebook to make discovery of what info is collected and the management of it more straight forward and easier to find. To find out exact steps you can always refer to the Facebook Help Center but the steps for downloading a copy of your data are relatively straight forward: Simply open the drop-down menu in the top-right corner of your profile page and click settings. Once you arrive to the settings page look for the link that says Your Facebook Information. From here you can view various bits of the information that Facebook has or, if you prefer, you can have a complete copy of everything emailed to you. Some of this information can be a bit odd (a list of advertising categories tied to your account) while other information can be pretty obvious (lists of all of your posts). If you do choose to download all of your info be prepared for it to take a little while, even if you don't post many things.
Facebook has promised going forward that they will make it easier to delete things but, for now, the process is a bit cumbersome as there is a different way to delete things depending on what you want deleted. It's also important to note that not everything is removable without closing down your account. For posts, you need to visit the Activity Log while for contacts you'll need to visit your Invite History page. Things like advertising categories and ad history are currently not removable.
Keeping data off of Facebook
Keeping things off of Facebook can vary in difficulty. Here are a couple of general rules however that you can follow that will help out:
- Don't post it if you don't want it known
This one is probably the most obvious but also the most ignored rule. If you don't want Facebook (or everyone in the world) to know about it, don't post it on Facebook. Even posts that are intended to be private are not fully safe from being exposed to people you may wish hadn't seen it. A good rule of thumb to remember when putting anything on Facebook, or the internet as a whole, is that it is basically no different than announcing it in the middle of a crowded city square.
- Weigh convenience vs privacy
Another thing that you should consider doesn't necessarily pertain just to Facebook but applies everywhere: When signing up for any service, app or website always consider whether you would rather have convenience or privacy. These both tend to lie on a spectrum most of the time with convenience being at one end and privacy at the other. You can have one or the other or maybe a mix of both, but you will likely never be able to enjoy full convenience while remaining fully private. The best example of this goes back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal: an app that asks you to sign in with your Facebook account. On the one hand you have the convenience of being able to sign into something with a user name and password you already know. But on the other hand, doing so may grant that app access to information about you that you would rather not be handing out.
- Use safe browsing tools
While you can easily control what you do on Facebook, what about the other information that Facebook collects? Things like websites you've visited, things you've looked at, etc? Unfortunately, there's no simple "off" button for this type of information but there are a few things you can do to help. Some of the simplest is to use ad and tracking blockers like uBlock Origin or Ghostery. Tools like these will help prevent trackers from Facebook as well as many other companies from tracing where you go and what you do on the web. Another, more advanced option would be to use a VPN service to "anonymize" your browsing completely. Using a VPN can be thought of as a way to create a sort of fake online identity. It doesn't necessarily stop trackers and data gathering, it just assigns them to a person who doesn't actually exist.
Tracking is everywhere
One final thing to note is that, while this series focused primarily on Facebook, tracking of your online life and information is something that is done by almost every company in existence. Companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and more all gather data using similar (as well as different) methods to Facebook to gather data on everyone they can. In many cases, this data is inaccessible and unremovable. Fortunately, some governments are taking notice and legislation like Europe's GDPR are causing companies to revise their privacy policies, trim down on tracking and make the data that has been collected on you available for your perusal and even removal. Unfortunately, for now, it's a wait and see game for whether or not similar laws will make it to the United States but with the recent discoveries of things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there is hope that options for controlling your privacy online will be coming sooner rather than later.