By Mark Mathis
Recent events caused me to ponder just how much Facebook knows about me. My journey to find out has been rather informative, and disturbing.
If you are like me you’ve enjoyed Facebook’s brilliance. How else can I keep up on Aunt Judy’s travels and all the goings on at my Dad’s church? The Newaygo Watercolor and Croton Crawlers groups makes the behemoth corporation feel like a buddy hanging out in my own back yard. Plus, I get the priceless benefit of letting the world know my dog doesn’t like sailboats. And those Facebook likes, who among us doesn’t enjoy a couple of those?
Where else can I hang out at the digital watering hole? Instagram? WhatsApp? Messenger? All are owned by Facebook. I’m a tad too wordy, and like free speech too much, for Twitter. Everything else is basically a niche product that maybe 500 people in Newaygo County may have heard of.
If you’ve used Facebook for long the platform will give you the creeps at times. I’ve gone to events far from home and stood by a random collection of people I hadn’t seen in a year — only to find Facebook recommend each one as a possible friend later in the day. Yuck.
Who hasn’t been amazed by the wisdom of Facebook’s ad targeting? In a weaker moment of late night infomercial viewing I made the mistake of looking at the $79 “My Pillow” on the web. Somehow “My Pillow” became my best FB friend ever, jamming my feed full of offers for weeks. My new best friend even offered to sell me two pillows for $120 if I acted in the next twenty-four hours!
The sad reality I’ve found is that If you are one of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users you are the product that produces the profit. That’s right, you are little more than a “widget” that is monetized at every opportunity. All of your likes, check-ins, clicks, and posts have value to others well beyond your 2nd cousin. Your contacts, locations, and interests also have value. The more FB knows about you, the more valuable you are.
Facebook was recently in the news after Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of 87 million Facebook users. They eventually used some of that information to target digital ads for the Trump campaign. This is far from the first time that Facebook data has been harvested, sold, and used on campaigns.
Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was coyly testifying in front of Congress about this data breach. It was at that moment I decided to look and see what exactly Facebook knows about me. Facebook doesn’t make it easy, but they will share all the details they keep on you.
I’m far from a power user, and only joined the platform two years ago. I don’t share location. I don’t accept people I don’t know as friends. I’m careful with what I post and what photos I share. In general, I’d categorize myself as someone who values security and privacy. I imagined my file was going to be pretty small.
In a mere hour I found the one link hidden deep inside of Facebook that would allow me to peer into the data that was kept about me. Soon I had a downloaded zip file that contained all the goodies FB had on me:
Facebook had the entire contents of my phone contacts. Hundreds of numbers and addresses for people that I’m not even FB friends with.
Apparently I’ve clicked on ads for “Why toilet seats are U-shaped” and “This is what happens when you ask the wrong guy for photoshop help.” Ad clicks stay forever. (So does anything you choose to upload onto Facebook. I already assumed that my family photos and videos were circulating around the Zuckerberg home.)
The list of advertisers that have uploaded my info is very long. This is where the real money is. Fitbit Ireland, Dairy Queen, Miranda Lambert, AmeriGas, Yahoo Sports, and Gun Dog Supply all care about me. So do hundreds more. Dozens of companies and people I don’t even recognize.
My information has been “shared” (which apparently sounds nicer than sold) with 39 politicians or political action committees that I recognize. Facebook now tells me that everyone from Barbara Boxer to Mike Pence has uploaded a “contact list with your information.” I’d think how much of my giant Facebook file is being shared has to do with how much is being paid.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Facebook keeps the device and IP information from wherever I log into Facebook. They then use this to figure out my location. When I’ve been in Florida, Vegas, or North Carolina I wasn’t alone. Facebook knows just about where we all are at any given time. They also keep it as a history. Whenever you log on to your phone, tablet, or desktop Facebook enjoys your “secret” shout out from Newaygo County. It doesn’t matter if you don’t share location data, they know.
In all the FaceBook file on Mark Mathis was fairly complete. I think I know myself even better after looking at it. I know after a career of investigating criminal complaints that all this information would be an investigator’s dream. The information Facebook has on you is hundreds of times more complete than what is available to your local police department. We should all be concerned if a government agency maintained this kind of file on it’s citizens.
Should we be equally concerned when a private company holds this much information about each of it’s 2.2 billion users? That’s a question for each user, and perhaps Congress, to ponder. With Facebook being the only game in town individual users get one real choice, to participate or not.
I’ll keep logging in, but I am under no illusion that Facebook is my friend. I also understand that the politics and culture of the company certainly will influence its product, and ultimately my online experience. I’m a commodity that FaceBook gladly sells, and perhaps tries to influence.
Facebook is like a furry, toothy, cute monster that shows up at your doorstep. It can be fun, entertaining, and great for conversation. It also takes some time to feed and water, and has the potential to grow into a one of those ugly horror movie beasts.
In a true display of irony, I can’t wait for this article to get uploaded to Facebook. Don’t forget to like this and shoot me a friend request. If you really love me make sure you validate my existence and share it. Just kidding.
Always remember - “If it’s Facebook, it’s forever.”
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