For years, millions of us have shrugged off nagging privacy concerns about Facebook's use of our data. Now, with Facebook at the heart of a colossal data-mining process conducted by political-strategy company Cambridge Analytica, those days are abruptly behind us.
Your likes, your interests, your friends, your photos, your location — your very identity itself. The data Facebook holds about you is more than just binary 1s and 0s somewhere in the cloud. And that data is hot property for companies looking to market to, or exploit, a global database.
Here's a look at the biggest controversy Facebook has faced to date. Plus, read on for clear and concise ways to learn what data Facebook already has about you, and how to secure that information.
Cambridge Analytica Data-Mining
Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have exploited Facebook's algorithms in an attempt to sway the 2016 U.S. election towards their client, the Trump campaign. To achieve this, the company is accused of collecting data from 50 million Facebook profiles.
The story, run in a collaboration between the New York Times and the Guardian, has sweeping implications for a social network that's home to two billion global users, especially if Cambridge Analytica was indeed able to game Facebook's algorithm.
The company's activities aren't thought to have targeted specific users, one-on-one. Instead, it worked to identify pieces of content with the potential to go viral, and ensure that they would. In effect, this manipulated Facebook's algorithms towards ideologies that were in line with the goals of the campaign.
How to Download Your Facebook Data
Facebook offers a simple way for you to take a look at the data they have collected on you specifically. Here's how to find your data.
- Find the “Settings” button in the drop-down menu at the top right of any Facebook page.
- Click “Download a copy of your Facebook data,” located below the General Account Settings.
- Click “Start My Archive.”
Facebook will take a while to generate the archive, but they'll email you to let you know once it's ready. Don't expect to wait long: I was able to get my data within an hour. You'll be able to see everything available in your account, from years-old documents you messaged someone once and forgot about, to every single poke you have sent or received.
Read more about how to download your Facebook data
Facebook Research Tools
A variety of free online tools are available that will allow you to run a forensic search on yourself — essentially, you'll be able to see what Facebook data about you is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. Here's a quick rundown of the tools that allow you to comb through Facebook.
Facebook Graph Search
This beta program allows you to run advanced searches on specific Facebook profiles (including your own). It can connect profiles with with posts by other people, places visited by another person, or any wall postings of them that mention specific words or phrases. If you have any embarrassing photos of a drunken office Christmas party you'd sooner forget, this will help you track them down.
Who Posted What?
This program functions similarly to Graph Search. It lets you target specific usernames and search them for keywords and timeframes.
So, apply this rich search functionality to yourself. Worried you have any ill-informed opinions to purge from the public eye? Search for them here, then get busy clearing them out.
Facebook Search Tool
This aptly-named tool will allow you to track down someone on Facebook. You'll just need their name, email, screen name, or phone number to start with. Having their employer, school, or hometown won't hurt either. It's a useful service if you're trying to track down someone you met once, but don't want to sift through 50 pages of Facebook search results for “John Doe.” Or, to bring things closer to home, you can use it to see how easy your own account is to pinpoint.
Best Data-Protection Practices for Facebook
Once you check out those tools, you'll be aware of the posts and information available to everyone. So how can you stop it from getting out?
In the end, the best way to protect your data is to be stingy when giving it out. The data that Cambridge Analytica fraudulently obtained was freely given: They used a survey-style app titled “ThisIsYourDigitalLife” in 2014 to get users to agree to make their profile information available to the app.
Here's a quick list of best practices that can keep your data private:
- Remove information from your Facebook profile
- Delete or reduce your activity in your “activity log”
- Find your app permissions page (pictured above) and delete all the apps — yes, even that one 2015 quiz that told you how sarcastic you were.
- Download a copy of all your Facebook data — Facebook has a tool to let you do this, and it can be an eye-opening exercise.
- Uninstall your Facebook mobile app (and don't forget about the separate Messenger app) — you just might enjoy the break from it, plus this cuts down a huge source of geo-data.
At the very least, you should consider tightening your Facebook privacy settings, allowing only your closest friends to see them. At the most, you can even remove the profile information entirely, though it may have been made available to corporations already.
Where Next for Cambridge Analytica?
The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is continuing to gather pace. This week, Alexander Nix, the company CEO, was suspended from the company with immediate effect.
Facebook itself suspended Cambridge Analytica immediately before the scandal broke, a decision that the Times deputy investigations editor Gabriel Dance termed a “totally disingenuous” attempt to get in front of the story. The furore has international implications — an executive for Cambridge Analytica has been recorded claiming that Analytica has influenced over 200 elections around the globe.
Debate continues around the extend to which Cambridge Analytica's campaign swung the election — in all likelihood, it had a contributing, but far from deciding effect. Even so, its data-collection process and ability to exploit Facebook's network remain massive problems.
As we move forward in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the best policy will be to ensure massive data corporations and the social networks that provide their information are both more tightly regulated. In the meantime, the smartest thing you can do is make steps to regulate your data yourself.
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