Recent news of a massive data breach has made some Facebook users wonder: What does Facebook know about me, and how can I control it?
In 2013, a third-party app developer named Aleksandr Kogan had access to 50 million Facebook users’ data for academic research, and without permission, he distributed it to a consulting firm with ties to the Trump Administration, Cambridge Analytica. The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica had possession of the data in 2015, at which time Facebook asked Cambridge Analytica to delete it all. The problem is, now in early 2018, with the 2016 U.S. general election in the rearview mirror, it seems Cambridge Analytica didn’t comply with that request.
This problem resulted from old, less strict rules about data collection by developers that Facebook updated in 2014, but Facebook shared the data with Kogan before that. Today, despite the fact that Facebook has promised further crackdowns, many still fear that Facebook and all of the apps connected to it know too much about them. Despite Facebook’s best efforts, some users worry, the company might not be able to secure information they share on the platform or keep it anonymous.
Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg fielded questions from news outlets about whether he would testify before Congress about Facebook’s collection and distribution of user data. Zuckerberg answered that he would be open to the possibility, and on March 27, CNN and other outlets reported that he is preparing to do so as a result of mounting pressures. These reports followed news that Zuckerberg would send deputies to speak with British lawmakers on behalf of Facebook regarding privacy issues.
Also on March 27, a group of Facebook users filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that the social media giant’s Messenger app collected information about their phone calls and text messages.
Amid this controversy, Facebook is reportedly putting the brakes on a smart home speaker it’s been developing — such devices that recorded users’ speech in their homes and send it to cloud servers for processing are often suspect of spying and data misuse.
On the other hand, Facebook is ramping up efforts to clarify privacy controls and help users find exactly what information Facebook knows about them. On March 28, Facebook published a blog post titled, “It’s Time to Make Our Privacy Tools Easier to Find,” in which it laid out plans for a new Privacy Shortcuts menu that will allow users to add two-factor authentication, delete records of their past activity, control the ads they see and more. It also explained a new section called Access Your Information, a more user-friendly interface for finding, downloading and deleting personal Facebook data. The platform's general settings menu will also be streamlined.
There are still more changes yet to be announced. “In the coming weeks, we’ll be proposing updates to Facebook’s terms of service that include our commitments to people,” the post’s authors wrote. “We’ll also update our data policy to better spell out what data we collect and how we use it. These updates are about transparency — not about gaining new rights to collect, use, or share data.”
For those who don’t want to delete their Facebook accounts, but also don’t want to wait for the new-and-improved menus to become available in app updates, here is a step-by-step guide to finding, downloading and deleting your Facebook data.
Your data might include photos about your family, locations you’ve visited, posts that reveal your political ideology, search queries you’ve typed into Facebook and more.
To access all of this information and more, log onto Facebook via a web browser — you can’t yet do it via the Facebook app. Under “General Account Settings,” at the bottom of the list, underneath the boxed-in options, you’ll see a link that says, “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” Click that, then click the green button on the next page that says “Download archive.”
From there, type in your password (this step is just to verify your identity). Wait a few minutes until you receive an email (at the email address connected to your Facebook account) with a Facebook link to your data.
It took 15 minutes for NBC News journalist Jeff Rossen to receive this email. He then downloaded years’ worth of private Facebook messages, records of friends he’d deleted, events he’d attended, photos of his children that he’d forgotten even existed, and even a list of contacts from his phone — including phone numbers of contacts that he is not Facebook friends with or do not have Facebook accounts.
Having all of this info in one place, in your possession, is one thing. But if you want to delete it, you can. You can do this in the Facebook app. On the bottom of the screen, you’ll see a row of icons on a white background. Tap the one on the bottom right-hand corner that is three lines stacked vertically. Scroll down and tap Settings, then tap Activity Log from the options that pop up.
In your activity log, you can select a year, dating back to the first year you had a Facebook account, then by month. Or you can filter based on the category of activity, including posts, posts you’re tagged in, photos and videos, photos you’re tagged in and others’ posts to your timeline.
Tap “clear” to delete things, or tap the down arrow to the right of any post or photo to delete it individually.
Just note that once you delete something, it takes 90 days to disappear from Facebook’s servers.