I downloaded a copy of my Facebook profile - Here’s what I found

TL;DR: Facebook has all the information you’d expect, and some you might not. Outside of the photos you uploaded and the messages you sent, they collect advertiser information based on your interactions with the website, and use that to extrapolate categories you fall under. To sum it up, they have a lot of information about you.

I’m in the process of deactivating — and moving on from — Facebook, and I have my own reasons for that. That’s not exactly what this short article is about. If you’re interested on learning about how to do that, CNET has a pretty decent walkthrough — including all of your options for breaking free of the network.

Still, I realized that while Facebook had become a little much for me and my techie life, there still existed some genuinely good memories and photos I wanted to make sure I preserved.

Photos like this gem.

I didn’t have time to cull through every photo I had ever uploaded, so I decided to try Facebook’s “download profile” feature before I deactivated, and eventually deleted, everything on it.

The process is pretty straightforward. You navigate to the top-right corner of the Facebook homepage, click the arrow, and click on settings. From there, at the bottom of the “General” tab, is the option to “Download a copy of your Facebook data.” That takes you to the screen shown above at the top of the article. It takes a few hours, depending on the size of your profile — eventually, they email you letting you know it’s ready. It ended up being a 0.5GB ZIP file, which I downloaded.

This is what you’re greeted with:

There are a few things I expected to be there, and some I didn’t. I’ll start with what you’d probably expect to be in the archive.

What Facebook (unsurprisingly) has

Media. Lots and lots of media. Every photo, every album, every video I have ever personally uploaded. This makes a lot of sense. I’ve treated Facebook as a storage platform for a while, and it would be weird if that wasn’t a part of what they had on me. They also had “Facial Recognition Data” which included a few threshold values for their facial recognition algorithm.

Messages. Again, not surprising. They have 700 separate .htm files containing sparse message history. It does weird me out a little that it’s all, well, there, but this makes sense. At the bottom there exists every file I’ve ever sent or received in chat too. It seems like it covers everything.

Profile history. By this I mean changes, basic information, etc. This is found in the main “index.htm” file at the root. This was a bare-bones Facebook profile page that showed a ton of stuff, including my name, profile URL, Facebook registration date, all emails I have ever used with the account, address, phone number, other names, previous names, previous relationships, family, education, etc. The list goes on. This, again, is standard information I’ve got on my profile, and again makes sense. Although admittedly it was weird to see all of my previous relationships listed in chronological order in plain-text.

Everything I have followed or joined, ever. Past the basic profile history, they’ve got a lovely list of every single possible interest, page, or group I followed at any point. It’s a long one. I don’t know when, for example, I utilized the “movies to watch” feature that Facebook offers, but apparently I wanted to make sure I remembered to watch the movie Dredd. And Facebook remembers that. Beyond that, it lists groups in the order they were joined chronologically, so it’s weird little nostalgia trip looking at the list of pages I liked when I joined. I’m kind of proud to see the first interest I ever listed was “Hermès.”

Other standard stuff. They’ve got a “Friends” tab which shows every friend you have, every friend request you’ve sent, every friend you’ve removed, and every profile you’ve declined. At the bottom, a section called “Friend Peer Group” lists me as “Starting Adult Life,” which I suspect is for advertising. They’ve also got all of my events I’ve attended, my whole timeline, and all the pokes I’ve done on my profile, which I totally forgot was a thing. Finally, they have session records of every time I’ve logged on or made a change to my profile.

What Facebook ALSO has

Topics. Let’s talk about those interests we mentioned for a second, actually. Turns out, those are really, really valuable. So valuable, in fact, that they’re listed in a separate section of the offline profile, titled “Ads.” Navigating over there reveals an absolutely gargantuan list titled “Ads Topics” of every single possible interest, both confirmed and suspected, that I could possible have. I see real things like HYPEBEAST (which I follow on FB) to things like “Buddy film,” “Software Engineering,” “Music ensemble,” “Sales,” and “Cloud Computing.” Basically, building and extrapolating a virtual ad profile based on my Facebook interests and, I presume, browsing history. One ad topic was listed as “Pelham, Alabama,” a city and state I have never been to, simply because my friend, an independent musician, goes by the stagename “Pelham.”

They’ve also got a list of every single ad I have ever clicked. This list isn’t too long (~20 ads) but I assume it’s pretty valuable for advertisers. Below that is a list that kind of confused me…

To be honest, I have no idea what this fully means. I can understand AmEx and Uber having my contact info, but I really don’t know the extent of that — is it phone number, email, address, or all of them? For some of these, I understand, but for others, it weirds me out that “Viking River Cruises” has my contact info when I’ve never taken a cruise or even researched one.

Facebook drives almost 100% of its revenue through ads, so I’m really not surprised they have this robust a profile on me. It’s what you sign up for when you’re using a “free” service. But still, I’m a little surprised to see the information and insight they, and others, have on me.

All of my friends’ contact information! Congratulations, if you’re reading this and we were friends on Facebook, like it or not, I have your each of your emails and phone numbers. That’s pretty much it. I ALSO realized that clicking “sync contacts” in Facebook Messenger does, in fact, give Facebook the contact card of each person in your cell phone. I assume this helps them build out your contacts list and perform a merge of the two, but to me, it just serves as a reminder to be very, very careful with what permissions you give apps access to.

To be honest, they aren’t horribly secretive about all this, and it’s partially my mistake for not fully understanding the implications of giving Facebook the ability to see my contacts, but that’s all part of a larger discussion on Facebook as a platform and my qualms with it, which I won’t get into here.

Installed applications. This one makes sense if you think about it, but it more served as a reminder to me. Think of every time you’ve used Facebook to sign-in to something, from the mundane (Uber, AirBnb, Instacart) to the obscure (those quizzes we all took in high school) I really never gave these a second thought, and forgot they all existed, but lo and behold, the section of “Installed Applications” shows over 100 apps that I allowed access to that sit there, collecting data. Most of them, thankfully, only have my friend’s list, and some are hilarious reminders of startups I used to love (remember “Bump”?) but I definitely forgot they still had access to the data I gave them access to.

Conclusion

What point am I trying to make of all this? Like I mentioned, none of what I found was exactly damning or groundbreaking. Facebook takes your information, learns from it, and spits it back out to advertisers to make money from. You’ve got a lot of activity and media on Facebook, and it’s all valuable. This virtual profile I downloaded is a tenth as useful to me for the photos as it is to them as a representation of who I am to an advertiser. There are some things they don’t have on me that other users are reporting, including call logs.

The point of this isn’t to fearmonger. The cost of free is well-documented, and being able to use a service like Facebook at such scale demands giving up some personal information and privacy in the process. As a platform, it’s up to Facebook to use that information responsibly and in a mutually benificial way. I’m not quite sure they’re there just yet.

Work at Microsoft, writing about the intersection of technology & fashion.