What does Facebook REALLY Know?

“I Downloaded the Information That Facebook Has on Me. Yikes.”  


Brian Chen’s April 11 article was one that immediately stuck out to be because of all of the discussions we have had, as well as all that I’ve written, about the more personal side of the Facebook controversy. I’ve written about my own Facebook account, and how so much of what I’ve “liked” or done on Facebook outside of scrolling through my newsfeed was the result of my seventh-grade zeal surrounding my new Facebook account. We’ve tied this into discussions of things like the “Do Not Track” documentary, which discussed the ways that businesses use information they gather through Facebook activity to gain client intel and ultimately affect the client’s outcome, because it seems crazy that companies would actually rely on social media information that to us is so obviously out of character and does not really say anything about who we are at all. Thus, Chen’s title captured me, and I was curious about what Chen, who dug through his own Facebook data, would find on himself, and the conclusions he would draw from this exploration.

            Chen begins by explaining that he, as I’m sure many of us would have, did not expect to see very much when he downloaded a copy of his own Facebook data. Like many of us might claim as well, he also says that he does not post often, and rarely clicks on ads. Yet, he tells us, opening his file was “like opening Pandora’s box.”


Before delving into a discussion of how and why his data was collected and stored, as well as how it could be removed, Chen describes what he quickly learned Facebook knew about him. For one, there were the approximately 500 advertisers, many of which Chen had never heard of, that had his contact information. Facebook also had Chen’s entire phone book, including the number to ring his apartment buzzer. There was also a permanent record of the 100 people Chen had deleted from his friends list over the last 14 years. Facebook knew more about Chen than he even wanted to know.

            Chen breaks up his findings into a few different categories. The first he entitles “Facebook Retains More Data Than We Think.” Though the title makes the general gist of his findings obvious, Chen uncovers some important information—and also highlights that as users, we are not actively aware or skeptical enough to foresee what he ultimately finds out. What Chen first found surprising was a section of his data called Contact Info, which contained the names and numbers of every single person in his iPhone address book. This had been collected when he had uploaded it while setting up Facebook’s Messenger app. Chen highlights that his expectation was that Messenger would use his contacts to find other people using the app so he could connect with them, and only hold onto the relevant information for only the people using Messenger—thus, he was surprised to find that Facebook kept his entire contact list down to his mechanic and local pizza place.

            Chen also says that his data revealed just how little Facebook forgets, a revelation that came to him after seeing the permanently recorded dates of not only when he signed up for Facebook, but a record of every time he deactivated his account, as well as a history of every single time he opened Facebook over the last two years, including some of the locations of the logins (Chen recognized this as a security measure and was not as upset by this finding).

            What Chen found most surprising, and most bothersome, was the saved data that he had chosen to delete, yet it seemed to remain “in plain sight.” This was again tied to his friends list, in which Facebook had a record of “Removed Friends.” Chen questioned why Facebook should remember the people he had chosen to cut off from his life, and was dissatisfied with Facebook’s explanation that they used the information to make sure these people did not appear in his feed with the “On This Day” memory feature.

Photo: Mashable

The second category of discovery that Chen reported was one he titled “The Ad Industry Has Eyes Everywhere.” Right off the bat, Chen writes that “what Facebook retained about me isn’t remotely as creepy as the sheer number of advertisers that have my information in their databases.” Not only did Chen’s Facebook data include the history of the dozen or so ads he had clicked on while on Facebook, but a section called “Advertisers with your contact information,” which was followed by a list of around 500 brands. Chen points out that he had never even remotely interacted with the majority of these brands. Chen then delves into a detailed list of a few ways that brands can obtain information, some of which are so separated from Facebook, such as credit card loyalty programs, that it begins to become apparent just how much information about us is circulating out in the world.

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A snapshot of Chen’s own ad history (NYTimes)

            Chen presents his bottom line: even a Facebook “lurker,” like himself, who has little interaction with any digital advertising can still have personal information released to a massive number of advertisers. While Chen points out, as I felt while reading, that this is not particularly surprising, Chen explains that the emotional aspect of actually seeing this list of unknown brands with all of his contact information was a sort of reality check. Notably, the advertisers Chen reached out to in order to ask about how they used his data did not respond.

            At the end of the article, Chen includes a final section of discovery entitled “What About Google.” Here, he points out that Facebook is the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the data collection of information tech companies. After downloading a copy of his own Google data, Chen realized that these data sets were significantly larger than his Facebook data. Included in the Google data was, to Chen’s surprise, a history of many of the news articles Chen had read, despite that he did not click on ads for any of them, as well as a folder with a record of every single app Chen had opened on his Android phone since 2015 with date and time included—Chen described this as an “extraordinary level of detail.”

            The somewhat ironic silver lining that Chen includes at the end of the article is an overview of his LinkedIn data, the smallest of the group. It had exactly what Chen expected, namely spreadsheets of his contacts and only information he had added to his own profile.

This was ironic to me because I have recently caught myself in multiple discussions with peers about what I believe are actually the discomforts of LinkedIn, which I have actually always felt was exponentially more personal than Facebook. While Facebook may be collecting my data, LinkedIn has actual, up to date information about where I work and what I’m doing—and it’s easily acceptable to anybody who searches me. Thus, while LinkedIn has always felt to me like the most exposing of social media platforms, it is ultimately the least personally invasive.

While the article summary was long, I felt that it was important to directly address many of Chen’s findings because I think that pinpointing specific conclusions is important for discussing the privacy debate because of the large variety of knowledge that people have on the subject. While some may have not been phased at all by Chen’s findings, for many of us, much of what he found might be eye-opening in that it was able to describe the actual ways that all of this data circulates, and the role that Facebook has in it.

A video was also included in the New York Times article, which I think is a good one to watch, and I have attached it here.