Can’t remember what you did 10 years ago? Facebook has a better memory than you do
Facebook is in the spotlight over the way it collects data and how it has been used by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, raising questions about how much the social media giant knows about us. A simple process reveals that it harvests and stores vast amounts of personal information.
SINGAPORE: I learn something new on Facebook almost every day.
Whether it’s reading a news story shared on my News Feed, or finding out about an old schoolfriend’s wedding, it seems that Facebook provides me with an almost never-ending source of entertainment and information with just a few taps and swipes on my phone.
Just a few days ago, I learnt that every single thing I’d ever done on Facebook – every message I sent, every ad I clicked on, and every emoji I sent or received in the past 10-odd years of my Facebook existence – was niftily captured in this file called Facebook Archive.
It wasn’t even that hard to download: The link was prominently displayed under the General Settings tab on my profile. All it took was a few minutes, and a copy of it appeared in my Downloads folder.
I’ll admit, I’m not the most active Facebook user. While I use it to some degree due to the nature of my work, I don’t like or share posts as much as some of my more social media savvy friends or colleagues.
But the sheer amount of data captured in my file was stunning.
I spent a slightly uncomfortable hour or so sifting through everything, and reliving bits of my past that had completely slipped my mind. From travel itineraries planned and shared with friends I’d long since lost touch with, to old photographs shared with people over Facebook Messenger and even groups created from my days as a student to discuss plans for school orientation, everything – absolutely everything – had been reproduced in full in that giant file.
And then there were the ads. Yes, as I soon realised, every single Facebook ad or link I’d clicked on over the past month was there. Most of them weren’t out of the ordinary – and in fact, gave me a lot of interesting insight into my current interests: Travel, wedding planning and interior design.
Facebook, it seems, knows more about my life than I do.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY (AND TARGETED ADVERTISING)
The fact that Facebook captures and tracks so much of my data may have been surprising to me, but Simon Kemp, founder of marketing consultancy Kepios, was well aware of this.
“Facebook is aware of every single thing you do on Facebook,” he said. “Even if you’re just opening the app on your phone and scrolling through your feed.”
“Facebook knows when you pause and what you’re looking at on your feed, so even though you’re not actively tapping on it or clicking through, it knows that you’ve paused your feed at that point.”
But why would Facebook be interested in all these little nuggets of data, I asked. Kemp explained that it all comes down to one thing: Money. Or targeted advertising, if you will.
“Storing all these huge amounts of data obviously costs Facebook a lot of money, so they wouldn’t be collecting and storing this if it didn’t have financial value to them,” he said. “If you think about it, 99 per cent of their revenue comes from selling advertising, so it’s all about making sure their advertisers sell you the things you’re really interested in.
“Say a soap maker wants to sell you soap at the right place, at the right time and in the right colour,” he explained. “Facebook collects lots of information to make sure they’re not just selling you a bar of soap.
“They want to find out the colours you like, and the kind of things you’re interested in, so they can tell you a little story instead of just putting a picture of a bar of soap in front of you.”
And indeed, a lot can be learnt even from little things like the kind of emojis or stickers I use in my messages to friends, as Kemp explained. A smiley face, for example, can be used to make a text message seem more informal and make me seem more approachable. And perhaps, if I use a lot of smiley faces in my messages, that could mean that I’m cheerful or happy in real life as well.
“It can also tell how our social relationships work,” he added. “That’s a lot of information they can get based on just those little smileys.”
SHOULD WE BE WORRIED?
It all seemed slightly creepy to me, especially with news of the recent Facebook scandal with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica fresh in my mind. All those little nuggets of data, clearly, could be misused when accessed by the wrong pair of hands.
But to Kemp, it’s clear that the benefits far outweigh the possible risks.
“You’ve got two billion people around the world using Facebook, and the vast majority of them are doing absolutely nothing wrong,” he said. “But a small handful of people use the data to do things like manipulating elections, or bully people.
“Look at it this way,” he explained. “The vast majority of the world uses kitchen knives to prepare meals for their family, but every now and then, someone commits a crime with a kitchen knife.
“It doesn’t mean the kitchen knife is bad, it’s just that one or two people use them to do bad things.”
“Besides, the way Facebook shares its data with advertisers is anonymous, so they can target you, but they don’t know it’s you,” he added. “The rules have changed quite a lot since the Cambridge Analytica incident, and there are quite serious checks in place to make sure advertisers cannot get your specific data in that way.”
So, in a nutshell, should we be worried? The short answer, according to Kemp, is no.
“It’s a little bit scary when you look back at how you spent your day ten years ago, and you see how much data they’ve collected, but it was all you,” he said. “There’s nothing there that you didn’t do, so it’s following you across your activity.
“There’s nothing sinister about that.”