Your Personal Data & Its Keepers: Facebook

“Travel and tell no one, live a true story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one, people ruin beautiful things.”
– Khalil Gibran

With the dawn of the Internet, we were so gosh darn excited and having so much fun at all we could see, hear, learn and do online that we failed to notice that we were on a slippery slope where we increasingly sacrificed our security and privacy for convenience. While some of us started to become aware of the dangers in doing so, many simply had the attitude that they have nothing to hide, so what's the big deal? For the purpose of these articles, I'll not focus on why it's important to protect one's data, but how to do it. For further discussion on the importance of maintaining privacy, see this article from Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics: Loss of Online Privacy: What's the Harm?

So after years of online blissful ignorance, we've had a wake up call. We found we had already provided a wealth of personal information to various companies and organizations in order to take advantage of their oftentimes free services. We had also discovered that, no matter how careful one can be to protect one’s own computer from prying eyes, some of those companies had experienced massive data breaches that exposed our personal data to nefarious individuals.

So what do we do now? Aside from damage control, such as changing passwords, we need to stop the further leak of data. In this series of articles, I will focus on a few of the most popular companies that collect and store extremely massive amounts of personal data: Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft.


Facebook was started in 2004 at Harvard University by Mark Zuckerberg (and apparently other students who later settled their differences on this point out of court). Major support came from firms and individuals that had connections to the CIA, a fact which I suppose should give us a warm and fuzzy feeling that the good guys have our back. The growth of Facebook was nothing short of meteoric as families and friends found it to be an excellent way to stay in touch, reconnect and in general, have fun interacting with others; however, the convenience Facebook offered in allowing people to do this came at what seemed to be a reasonable price: providing information about oneself. While on the face of it, it seems fairly innocuous to do so, even Mr. Zuckerberg himself recognized the folly of freely submitting personal data, and this, even while Facebook was in the gestation stage. The following text exchange between Zuckerberg and another Harvard student illustrates this all too candidly (and is no doubt something Mr. Zuckerberg wishes would be forgotten):

Zuckerberg: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuckerberg: Just ask.
Zuckerberg: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend's Name]: What? How'd you manage that one?
Zuckerberg: People just submitted it.
Zuckerberg: I don't know why.
Zuckerberg: They “trust me”
Zuckerberg: Dumb &#@%!

So now we find that we’ve yielded way too much information, and we need to take steps to hide it from any further prying eyes. Keep in mind though, that while you may be able to change privacy settings or delete your online content, the information will still be out there in some way, shape or form, and you will never be able to remove all traces of it.

Can you un-know what you know now about me?
Zed in Zardoz

Who stops to think that it’s a very bad idea to enter one’s date of birth in their Facebook profile so that it’s publicly available? Hardly anyone. Yet, armed with only your name and date of birth, a hacker can be off and running to gather more information on you to eventually hack whatever accounts you have, your email, computer, phone, etc. Add to that knowledge of your hometown, and that makes you even more vulnerable.

Batten Down the Hatches!

The first thing to do is to decide whether you would like to delete your Facebook account or not. If you’re one of those people who can’t seem to do without it, I recommend going through the privacy and security settings for your account to lock it down as much as possible.

First, log into Facebook and go to Home. From the pulldown menu, select Settings:

The first item in the Settings menu is Security and Login. Those settings are geared toward protecting your Facebook account from unauthorized access and for password recovery. If you don’t already have a very strong password, then the first thing to do is to change it. To do so, click on Security and Login in the menu to the left of the Facebook Settings page:

Then click on Change Password:

The best passwords to use are those that can be remembered as the first letters to words or numbers in a phrase. For example, consider the password, cdbdbsabzb!. It’s not exactly easy to remember, is it? However, if you think of it as “See the bee, the bee is a busy bee!” then it becomes much easier to remember. Substitute a five (5) for the letter s, capitalize one or more of the other letters, and you’ll have a password that is exceedingly hard to crack.

With that, access to your account is as secure as it's going to get (with the exception of privacy settings to be covered later on). Now it's time to take a look at just how large your Facebook digital footprint is.

Give Me Everything You've Got on Me

Over the years, we've posted on friends' walls, uploaded and tagged pictures and videos, befriended some, unfriended others, allowed apps to access our account, etc, etc. For some of us, the amount of data that we've uploaded or submitted is staggering, but did you know that you can download all of it? I highly recommend doing so, if for no other reason than to stop and take stock of all we've exposed of ourselves.

Downloading your Facebook data:
Log into Facebook and go to Home. From the pulldown menu, select Settings (as shown in the first screenshot above). This will bring you to General Account Settings. The last item listed there is the one you want: Download a copy of your Facebook data:

Clicking on that link leads you to a Download Your Information page. It's best to leave the settings as they are, with all types of information selected (there are many). Then click on Create File. It will then confirm that your file is being processed:

Depending on how prolific a Facebook user you've been, the file creation process could take quite some time. Once it's complete, you'll receive both a Facebook notification as well as an email message letting you know that the file is available for download. At that point, if you go back to the Download Your Information page (see instructions above), you'll see an indication that there's a file waiting for you under the tab, Available Files:

Click on Available Files, and you'll be brought to the tab under which you'll see a download button:

Before you click it to start the download of your data, be sure to take note of the size of the file as displayed on the page, and make sure that your computer has enough free disk space to accommodate it. For those Facebook junkies among us, it will likely be quite a huge file. It will be as a single compressed file that you'll have to unzip once it's downloaded. I think you'll be amazed at all you'll see in there. Hopefully you'll not be embarrassed by some of the content you may have posted. After all, no one is immune to having a lapse in judgment.

To be continued…

Categories: Evergreen and Technology.