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28 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:42pm

I asked Facebook and Google for all the information they had on me. This is what I discovered

Every phone call. Every event I attended. Every sticker. 

By Dylan Curran

On Saturday 24 March 2018, I downloaded my Facebook and Google archives. The Facebook archive was 600mb, roughly 400,000 Word documents. The Google archive was 5.5gb, roughly 3m Word documents.

These archives are broken down by categories, I’ll start with Facebook.

Facebook collects the following data:

  • All your sent messages
  • All your received messages
  • All of your phone contacts (yes not just your Facebook friends)
  • All of your text messages
  • All of your phone call records (not Facebook calls)
  • All your sent files
  • All your received files
  • Every time you sign into Facebook, and from where
  • And all the stickers you have ever sent (it’s just a joke at this stage)

This is not entirely surprising, it is, after all, what we expect from Facebook following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. They are the drug addicts of data, squeezing every last drop from the needle before they move on to the next one. (Facebook points out that users have to expressly agree to have their call and text history logged, and explains how to turn it off here).

Next it was onto Google. The search engine collects the following data:

  • All of your search history (regardless if it has been cleared from your browser)
  • All of your Google calendar events, and if you attended them (using your location to confirm your attendance)
  • Your location every time you turn on your phone, converting it into a timeline to show everywhere you have been for the last twelve months.
  • All of the images and files you have ever downloaded
  • Your Google fit information (steps, workouts, etc)
  • All of your stored photos, and metadata (where the picture was taken and when)
  • Every advertisement you’ve ever viewed or clicked on
  • Every app you’ve ever launched or used
  • Every app you’ve ever installed or searched for
  • All your YouTube history since the day you started using it

Breaking this down, Google stores your Search history, regardless of whether or not you clear it from your browser. It stores this history in a separate database, and if you want to delete it you actually have to go in and specifically delete it from your account (via Account > Settings > Browser Settings > Clear History). Not only that, but you have to do this on all your different devices.

Google maps your location every time you turn on your phone (as long as location is on, which it has to be if you want to use Maps) and compares this against Google Calendar. In short, Google can confirm that you’ve attended events without you having to actually click anything.

Google stores images, files, and photos regardless of whether or not you have deleted them. Google Drive contained dozens of files I had explicitly deleted, including my PGP private key, which is used to encrypt e-mails. If someone got their hands on that, they could impersonate me online to get pretty much anything they wanted. 

Such information is harvested from us daily, and the scale is alarming. What is terrifying is not so much what it is doing right now, but what could be done in the future. To put it another way, this entire scenario was unthinkable 30 years ago, 15 years ago, even five years ago. Can we trust that mammoth corporations, with hundreds of thousands of employees, are all ethical and noble to the bone? That a jealous boyfriend won’t check up on his ex-girlfriend? That parents won’t stalk their children? That a political figure won’t use this to exploit voters or opposing politicians?

Edward Snowden showed the moral depravity people sank to when handed this kind of power. It’s important that we have a discussion as to whether we really want to exchange all this information for some cool services.

You can disable a lot of these data collections in the settings of the Google apps. For example, in Google Maps, go to Settings > Disable Usage information. Other apps operate in a similar manner. However, after trawling through all the personal data about me held by just two companies, I’m not entirely convinced that this will stem the problem. Nothing in life is free. If a service appears to be, assume at all times that something is being taken from you. 

Dylan Curran is a web developer and multimedia designer. Follow him @iamdylancurran.

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