Illustration by Hope McConnell.
Facebook is spying on you. We all know that, but some of us are only just finding out to what extent, and it’s a big wake up call. The big question is why?
Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, stories from users downloading their Facebook data and deleting their accounts, Facebook breaching the New Zealand Privacy Act 1993, and five weeks of Media Communication lectures on ICT, I downloaded my data to see how bad everything really is. Spoiler: it’s bad.
When you download your data, which comes in a zipped folder, a whole file is dedicated to ads. This file tells you what Facebook thinks advertisers should know about you, as well as what ads you’ve clicked on in the past month. I’m fine with Facebook saving and selling this data to advertisers. We know it happens, and we consent to it by joining Facebook. It’s how Facebook makes money; they’re transparent about that. There’s nothing too nefarious here.
No, the scary part is the contact information they collect. Facebook has collected phone numbers and email addresses from people I know but have never interacted with online or by phone or email. Phone numbers from my mum’s old friends, who I don’t personally contact, are connected to my account. I don’t even know how.
Then there’s your call history. If you’ve ever had the Facebook or Messenger app on your Android phone, Facebook might have recorded your texts and phone calls – even missed calls –from that time period. (iPhone users are apparently safe. Begrudging acknowledgement to you.) Facebook says this particular data collection is something that Android users of Messenger and Facebook Lite have to ‘opt in’ to. I definitely didn’t opt in to this, but according to Ars Technica, it’s sometimes switched on by default, depending on your device and the version of the app. So always doublecheck your app settings and permissions.
But it’s not a nice feeling, knowing you’ve been spied on. Facebook knows that my dad called me at 4pm on 29 May 2016 and we talked for 2,269 seconds. Missed a few calls? Facebook knows that too. The one consolation is that Facebook doesn’t record the content of your texts and phone calls. I guess that would be a step too far.
In the end, using Facebook is a personal choice. But every so often you might want to check your privacy settings and the data policy (www.facebook.com/full_data_use_policy) to ensure you still consent to the terms. And if you don’t, you can always delete or deactivate your account.
Thankfully, it’s easy to find out what information Facebook has on you. Log into your account on a computer, then go to your General Account Settings and click 'Download a copy of your Facebook data'. It’s pretty straight forward from there, but keep your data safe – there’s no point downloading all your Facebook data just to share it with your friend via Gmail.
But let’s be honest: Google probably has that data already.