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A New York Times reporter downloaded his Facebook data – and was terrified

If you think that your relatively minimal presence on Facebook may have exempted you from the social network’s now well-publicized data collection tactics, you’ll need to think again. Last week, the lead consumer technology reporter for the New York Times, Brian Chen, decided to download a copy of his Facebook data. A self-described Facebook “lurker,” Chen noted that he rarely posts, and doesn’t make a habit of clicking on ads. But still, he wrote, “when I opened my file, it was like opening Pandora’s box.”

What exactly is in such a file? If you download your Facebook data, you’ll receive a folder that contains several subfolders and files. If you look into your “index” file, you’ll be able to see what Chen calls “a raw data set of your Facebook account.” There’s a section titled Contact Info, which holds all the names and phone numbers of the people in your smartphone’s address book. How does Facebook have this information? If you uploaded your contacts when setting up Facebook Messenger, you effectively gave Facebook key information about everyone you know.

Chen’s revelation is just the latest in a series of gasp-worthy moments in the ongoing Facebook privacy debacle. The company’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has spent the last couple days testifying before Congress, whose members have asked the executive about how the company handles user information, whether or not the social media company should face stricter regulation, and perhaps most existentially, what Facebook really is. While we may not receive immediate answers to all these questions, Chen’s report even further underscores exactly how far-reaching the problem may be.

After downloading his data, Chen “learned that about 500 advertisers — many that I had never heard of, like Bad Dad, a motorcycle parts store, and Space Jesus, an electronica band — had my contact information, which could include my email address, phone number, and full name.” More alarming still was that Facebook had his entire phone book, “including the number to ring my apartment buzzer.” Moreover, the company had maintained a record of the 100 individuals Chen removed as a Facebook friend over the last decade and a half.

Deleted – but still there

While the existence of this data is in and of itself concerning, the real objection likely lies in the fact that much of this data cannot be deleted. While Zuckerberg claimed during his recent testimony that Facebook has a tool that “allows people to see and take out all the information they’ve put into Facebook,” this is not entirely true. Your birthday, people you’ve unfriended, and other key pieces of data, cannot be deleted from Facebook at all.

As Beth Gautier, a Facebook spokeswoman, told the Times, “When you delete something, we remove it so it’s not visible or accessible on Facebook. You can also delete your account whenever you want. It may take up to 90 days to delete all backups of data on our servers.”

Contact info held by strangers

Deletable information aside, an even more salient concern may be the Ads section of the downloadable data. Chen discovered a section titled “Advertisers with your contact info,” which for him included a list of about 500 brands, “the overwhelming majority of which [Chen] had never interacted with.” How would this have happened?

Facebook says that these advertisers likely acquired Chen’s information from another source and then pulled it into a larger list of folks they wanted to target, then uploaded that list onto FacebookFacebook, meanwhile, is discontinuing the option for advertisers to bring data in from other sources.

Brands can grab your information by buying it from a data provider like Acxiom, leveraging tracking technologies like web cookies, or simply by attaining it from a source you’ve previously approved, like your credit card loyalty program.

Ultimately, Chen noted, “Even a Facebook lurker, like myself, who has barely clicked on any digital ads, can have personal information exposed to an enormous number of advertisers. This was not entirely surprising, but seeing the list of unfamiliar brands with my contact information in my Facebook file was a dose of reality.”

If you want to go through this rather terrifying exercise yourself, you can do so by checking out this Facebook tool.

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Lulu Chang
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