Facebook makes data more accessible, and it can be extensive

Posted on: March 29th, 2018 by ABC News No Comments

iStock/Thinkstock(MENLO PARK, Calif.) — You can now easily download all of the data Facebook has stored about your profile in one simple step – and the information you’ll find might astound you.

Facebook announced Wednesday that it would be overhauling its privacy settings in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that left many fearful that their personal data had been compromised and launched a trending movement of users who vowed to delete Facebook.

But according to a cybersecurity expert, just because a user deletes their Facebook account doesn’t mean their personal data is going to permanently erased from the web. By the time a user gets around to deleting information, it’s likely already been stored in other places within the social media site they post to, in the cloud, or been picked up by an internet bot.

“That information is never really deleted,” said Tyler Cohen, a former DIA senior intelligence officer. “You can’t delete it. Once the cat’s out of the bag, which it is, there’s no way it’s going back in.”

Facebook doubled down on its promises to up security measures Wednesday by launching new privacy features, including one that compiles all of a user’s data into a single location. Much of this data was already available to users on Facebook, but now the company says finding, and in some cases deleting, data is easier than ever.

In most cases, users gave permission to Facebook and other social platforms to collect the data now available for them to download.

“Essentially you are signing a contract and often times they’re going to tell you what they’ll have access to,” Cohen said. “Sometimes it easy to understand and sometimes it’s in language that normal people who aren’t lawyers don’t understand.”

That means users are often giving companies and third-party applications permission to access their photos, microphone, and geolocation. Cohen said.

Users who want to download their data can do so by logging onto their Facebook page, clicking the settings tab, and then selecting the link that says “download a copy of your Facebook data.” Facebook will send an email a few minutes later when data is ready to be downloaded, and users can retrieve their data as a zip file.

 On “World News Tonight”, ABC News Chief Business correspondent Rebecca Jarvis showed a printout of one user’s data download. The stack of data was hundreds of pages high.

So if users were to download those hundreds of pages of data, what exactly would they find? Some of the available data that might be anticipated: likes, timeline posts and shares.

But here are some other data points users might anticipate if they choose to download their data from Facebook based on a test conducted by ABC News, although each user’s results might vary and be unique to them:

  • Contact information, including cell phone numbers, for hundreds of Facebook friends: Under the contact info tab users can find lists of hundreds of their Facebook friends personal phone numbers. Often the archive of Facebook phone numbers is far more extensive than a users personal contact list and includes the phone numbers of individuals a user may not have communicated with for years.
  • An archive of transcripts from messenger conversations: In addition to a list of the individuals and groups a user has chatted with, users can download individual HTML files that include transcripts of their conversations via messenger, in some cases dating back to the beginning of a messaging history.
  • Files that include almost every photo a user has ever uploaded: Some photos appear in the HTML files, and depending on the photo include an archive of every comment made, as well as additional details like the date uploaded and the make, model and camera settings of the camera used to take the photo. In some cases, the photos appear as individual jpegs available for download.
  • A list of all the advertisements a user has clicked on: Facebook keeps tabs on which advertisements users engage with. Users can see a list of the advertisements they’ve clicked on recently, be it for an outdoor concert, a pair of tennis shoes or a condominium.
  • A list of every advertiser who has a user’s contact information: Advertisers with contact information vary, some are very clearly companies while others are brands, celebrities or artists.
  • A list of a user’s Facebook logins and session updates, as well as their IP address: This includes the date and time of login, as well as the web browser used to access Facebook. IP addresses are used to infer a users geolocation, and the data download includes a list of potential coordinates a user might have accessed Facebook from.
  • Every single thing a user has ever posted or had posted on their timeline: Every happy birthday message, congratulation post and life event is available. Depending on a users publishing settings this can also include a song-for-song list of almost everything they’ve ever listened to on Spotify.
  • A comprehensive roundup of every event a user has ever attended, expressed interest in attending or been invited to: The data download includes a list of events users have been invited to, created or declined. Even if a user ignored an event invite altogether, Facebook has recorded that event in a “no reply” column.
  • A compilation of all installed applications: Some applications are obviously downloaded, but other quiz applications may have been downloaded without user knowledge. “A lot of applications can kind of trick you,” Cohen said.
  • All of a users friends, friend requests and those they’ve rejected: Users can see a list of every friend request they’ve ever received. They can also see a list of friends they’ve since unfriended.

Even more information is available to users who wish to comb through it, but Cohen said users should be less concerned about the specifics of their data and more concerned about who can access it.

“The issue really becomes how that data is pieced together to build a profile on you and who has access to that data,” Cohen said. “Because that’s when things get really really scary.”

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