I'm 28, and I’ve spent most of my life online. I got a Hotmail account at 10, my first phone at 11, and a Facebook account at 16. I must have given so much personal information away (let alone all the embarrassing drunk photos I posted online while at uni) that it’s easier to live in denial and not think about it.
But when the news came out that Facebook had passed on data of up to 87 million of its members to political consultancy Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge - and one in 20 Brits were reported to delete their accounts - I started to wonder just how much information the social network had on me.
For the first time in my online life, I decided to face up to my data and download everything Facebook had on me.
In recent months, the site has made this easy. All you have to do is go to 'settings' and then 'access your information'. It turns out that in the 12 years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve collected 324MB worth of data. This didn’t mean much to me until it took 40 minutes to download (35 minutes more than it took me to download a two hour film recently). Facebook knows far more about me than I’d ever realised.
Once the data download was completed, I opened it up with trepidation. The easiest way to do this is click on the ‘index’ tab, which has pulled all the information together in a Facebook-esque format. It showed my profile photo and then several tabs below, listing everything from profile to friends to security.
I started with profile, and saw everything I’d expected: phone number, date of birth, education, etc. It did feel weird to see that Facebook knows exactly who my mum, brother, and cousins are, even though it must have been me who let them know.
Below this, I saw every page or group I had ever liked, from ‘find a flatmate’ pages, to an optimistically-named group I have no recollection of, ‘LET'S SOLVE THE CREDIT CRUNCH!’ There were also an endless amount of the ‘Lost phone! New numbers please’ groups that people used to make back in the late Noughties.
As I perused my life in data, I was still relatively chill about all of it - until I clicked on the ‘contact info’ tab. Up came a huge list of people’s names and phone numbers. They were all contacts I’ve had on my phone – but not all of them are people I am Facebook friends with.
It turns out that I must have once downloaded the Facebook app on my phone and let it sync with my phone contacts - which means the app basically sucked up all the contacts in my phone and stuck them on a contact list. It includes numbers I’d lost years ago, which makes me wonder if downloading your data will become the 2018 way to restore lost numbers.
I know it's my fault for letting Facebook sync with my phone all those years ago when I first downloaded the app, but it still felt really weird that Mark Zuckerberg and Co. have my gynaecologist’s phone number. Perhaps worse still, it’s also not particularly helpful that I now have access to several of my exes' phone numbers after deliberately deleting them.
For a lot of people, the biggest concern with social networks storing their data is how it can be passed on to advertisers. So I was pleasantly surprised to click on the ‘ads’ tab, and see that only a handful of advertisers had my contact info. And they’re all ones I already use – Airbnb, Spotify, Uber, Deliveroo, and Uber Eats (yes, I get a lot of takeaways).
For me, the most disconcerting tab was ‘security’. It showed me that I deactivated my account in 2010 and 2011, and then an impressive 15 times in 2015 (it was a tough year). But, then, it showed me the IP address and date of every single time I have logged into Facebook since 2009. This was just creepy, especially when some of the information is logged with messages like ‘estimated location inferred from IP’ - which infers they've tracked my every move from wherever I have logged in.
This means that they have always known where I am. But here's the thing: I consented to them knowing. Facebook collect this information for two reasons: it's partly about security and making sure there isn't unusual activity on your account, and partly so they can target you with the right adverts. If you don't want to share this information you need to go to your account settings and switch off the 'location' toggle.
Seeing that Facebook actually has this data makes me question what it has been used for.
I asked Professor Eerke Boiten – an expert in cyber security at De Montfort University - about this. He explained that the main problem is not actually the information we are “knowingly” giving away, like me giving Uber my info or, even, our “Facebook likes, cookies tracking our web browsing or Google Maps recording our every movement”.
No, as he sees it, it’s the extent to which we are all being “tracked” in ways that are difficult to spot. “It’s hard to even be aware of how much such tracking is going on,” he explains.
As I looked through the rest of the 324MB, I felt a bit queasy about how much I may or may not have given away. It all seemed to be made up of photos and videos (though they’re only ones I’ve uploaded, not the hundreds I’ve been tagged in), and a ridiculously large amount of private messages in no order whatsoever. Most of them are so embarrassing I couldn't read them without squirming, but one made me cry.
It was a conversation with a friend who passed away two years ago, and I’d completely forgotten we had this Facebook exchange. The last message was me flaking out on our plans and him saying, “No probs, let me know when suits”. I never replied, and he died a month later. I felt absolutely awful reading this. Who wants to be reminded of the fact they cancelled on someone who they'd never, ever be able to make it up to?
Downloading my Facebook data was officially one of the most excruciating things I've ever done. Even clicking onto my timeline – and scrolling back to 2006 when I first got an account mid-GCSEs – is uncomfortable. It showed me how my girlfriends and I used to call each “bitch” and “ho” to look cool, or put each other down. It was so cringey that it made me want to give our teen selves a big hug and tell them that they don't have to try so hard to be something they're not.
I started to wonder if I’d even like my 17 year old self, who was apparently obsessed with The OC, terrified of ending up like one of the characters from F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - who live empty, hedonistic lives - and received condolence messages on her wall when she failed her driving test.
It was just awful, and I never want to see any of it again. But because Facebook has kindly compiled it all into a ZIP folder for me, it’s here forever. As disturbing as it is that the company has so much data on me from over the years, it’s much more painful on a personal level to know that I can’t ever escape my past.
While I do have teenage diaries and old photos that are just as embarrassing, this is worse. I deliberately created those mementos at the time, but because I never understood Facebook's small print, I had no idea that it was creating this digital folder of my humiliating past.
Dr Ilka Gleibs is a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics. She explains it’s perfectly natural for Facebook users to “feel cheated and alienated” when they read about data breaches, given how much of our personal and emotional histories the site has.
The word ‘data’ makes it sounds like we’re talking about numbers, but what we’re really talking about is our friendships, our relationships, our memories, our ups and our downs.
When I downloaded the 'data' this was all there in black and white, and it made me want to do a '2015 Radhika' and delete my Facebook again. But there’s no real point, because my data is already there.
Instead, I promise that from now on, instead of just signing up to new app services via Facebook (meaning that their creators can then access some of my Facebook data) I’m going to do it the long way, and actually put my details in to create a new account each time.
I am also making an effort to be more aware of what data different apps and organisations are taking when I quickly click ‘Yes’ to their terms and conditions so I can get my taxi/takeaway/online shopping. If anything good has come from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Ilka says, it is that “it has made people aware of the implications of social media data and how it can be used”.
It’s a small step, but if it means I can lessen my online data footprint in some way, then it’s officially worth taking.
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- How Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook targeting model really worked – according to the person who built it