In the midst of the current scandal rocking Facebook, many people are wondering whether they should stay on the social network and exactly what data Facebook has. It turns out, some of the information Facebook gathers is, frankly, quite scary.
I downloaded my Facebook history and was amazed, perhaps shocked is a better word, at what was in my profile - personal information that others thought was hidden. Here's how to access your full history and how to look through it.
Given recent events, I was curious to find out what information Facebook had connected to my profile. So, I started by accessing my archive. And once I was in, I found that Facebook was sharing information with me that was meant to be hidden from me.
How to download your Facebook history
Accessing your history is quite straightforward.
- Log into Facebook using a web browser (I could find how to do this via the iOS app).
- Near the top-left area of the screen, there's a downward-pointing triangle. Click on it and then choose the settings option that's second from the bottom of the menu.
- At the Botton of the list of items in the main section of the display, click the "Download a copy of your Facebook data" option.
Once you've done that, you'll see a new screen with a green "Download archive" as well as an instruction to protect your archive. That's ironic given how well Facebook has protected our data.
The process of creating the archive takes a while but you'll receive a Facebook notification and an email telling you when it's done. You can then receive a zipped archive of your Facebook history.
Accessing your history
Once you unzip the archive, you'll end up with a new directory of files and folders. There's no need to scroll through each folder. Just open the folder that was created when you unzipped the archive. It will be called "facebook-username". Mine contained four folders and one file.
That file, index.html, is the one you need to open. When you do that, the file will open in a browser window, presenting you with a simple website with all your content.
Down the left side, you'll see links to
- Contact Info
- Places Created
Clicking on each of these will reveal various parts of your history that have been retained by Facebook.
Here's the scary bit
I started by taking a look at the Contact Info section. Incredibly, five of the first six contacts on the list were not my Facebook friends. Yet I had their names and phone numbers right there in my contacts. The name at the top of the list was someone I only met and communicated with, completely outside Facebook, for the first time last week. My contact with that person was via email on various devices and over the phone from my iPhone.
The second name on the list is someone I've had the occasional business interaction with the other three people I have no recollection of every speaking to or meeting.
Yet Facebook has shared their personal information with me.
When I called the first person on the list, they were surprised I had access to that information as, even though they had put their phone number into Facebook, they had only elected to share it with friends.
When I looked at their profile on Facebook, their phone number was hidden from me. Yet, it was available through my archived history. In fact, when that person checked, he had locked his account down so that the number wasn't even available to his friends. I followed this up with another party on my list who was similarly shocked.
In other words, Facebook is making data accessible to me that the owner has explicitly tried to keep hidden.
I contacted the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) to find out whether this was a potential breach of the Privacy Act. They declined to make a comment but did provide a statement, saying
I am aware of the reports that users’ Facebook profile information was acquired and used without authorisation. My Office is making inquiries with Facebook to ascertain whether any personal information of Australians was involved.
I've also asked Facebook for a comment but, at the time of publication, they haven't come back to me. If they do, I'll publish a response.