What is included in your personal data file on social networks and services?

I am usually not a person who is overly afraid of the information I’ve shared on various networks and services, but after voting on the proposed Facebook changes, I began thinking whether I can establish how much exactly I’ve shared through the years.

The short answer is: A LOT.  And I am not underestimating. Although I’ve read and agreed on the terms and conditions of every service and therefore I know the pitfalls of providing my information, pretty much I’ve been increasing information sharing exponentially, by a point that people can find almost everything about me should they decide to look. Despite the fact that I have nothing to hide, this bothered me to some extend. After all, what my grandparents and parents consider private, most of us consider information worthy of sharing with our social networks, sometimes to a minuscule and ridiculous details.

You might be familiar with the effect that sooner or later you increase you sharing, purchasing, user activity to a level that you feel the service and its algorithms have a good idea who are they targeting for services and advertising.

Therefore, I decided to go through the various services I use and see if I can export the data that they collected about me. Furthermore, as a EU citizen, under the European data protection law, I am entitled to receive a copy of all the personal data a company holds about me. So, let’s start:

Facebook

If you don’t know – you can download your data from the platform – either the short version or the extended version Facebook data also provides information about logging locations, types of devices used and the IP addresses, from where I logged into Facebook.

Going down through the list, you can see the adds you’ve clicked on and a tab called #Ads Topics – if you wonder what that might be – it is all the interests you’ve typed into your about page. Pretty good collection of topics for advertisers to target me better, and it is all my fault due to the fact that I wrote them in the first place.

Additionally, you can see the events you’ve been invited to participated in – and your respective answer – whether you accepted, declined or did not answer at all.

And here comes the first surprise. These data sets do not allow you to see all the data that was collected from the service, regardless what Facebook has stated. Valuable information is missing from the files, at least in my case. Moreover, the data is from parts of 2010, 2011 (not the whole year of course) and 2012 so far, although I am participating in Facebook since 2007.

One particular instance that angered me was that though you can see you activity in the Activity Log, there is no easy way to download the information – pretty much you need to copy and paste it.

I plan to ask for my entire data as I am allowed by EU law and for that I need to contact Facebook by email and give them a copy of my ID. I suspect this process will take some time.

LinkedIn

So far I’ve been trying to see whether I can download all my LinkedIn data and the answer has been negative. I can export my contacts in .csv file, I can also use a service to see my LinkedIn graph, but I could not find an option to download my data.

Personally I believe LinkedIn should provide such a service – it can be very useful for business purposes, as well as personal endeavors to look through your business network and your habits there.

Twitter

The situation with Twitter is similar to that of LinkedIn.  I could not find an option provided from the service to download your data from the micro-blogging platform. Nevertheless, there are several services you can use to download your tweets, direct messages and mentions by using the third party service Tweetdownload, but it is limited only to 3200 tweets.

Now, if you want to graph your twitter network, you can use NodeXL, Gephi, etc for research purposes, but nothing that comes from Twitter as far as I know.

Google

Next stop is my Google Data.  You can download your data from Google Takeout or through Account Settings and choose whether you want to download the entire collection or a part of the data set.

I opted for all the data collected and received a hefty file of my activities. It includes Youtube videos I’ve uploaded (although some are missing), my +1 – and this option is cool because you can see what you’ve +1d and click on the links again to reread or see the articles.

Another useful option is the download of your circles information (from Google+) – it comes in .vcf file and it is named as the appropriate circle, although the .vcf per circle has only one card, and not all of them. The same situation is with my contacts info. I could not open most of the .vcf files due to lack of permissions or broken file.

When it comes to Google+, you can see your profile data in a file called “Your Name. json”. It contains your name, gender, email address, web addresses you included in your profile, your about section, your work places and geo locations you’ve lived in.

Continuing forward, there is a folder called Drive, which contains all the files and folders I’ve created on Google Drive. This option is pretty awesome for fast download of your files. As far as I can see, all the files I’ve uploaded or created have downloaded, even the several mc access database files I uploaded in Google Drive for back-up.

Next comes your Picasa files – very easy and smooth way to download all the pictures you uploaded to the service without a sweat. What I found is that all the pictures I’ve uploaded, as well as the ones from my Instant Upload from the phone have been included in the data file.

And we are coming to one of the best features of the Google Takeout service – not only you can download your reader feed, but also in another folder called Stream – you can see the stuff you’ve shared on Google+.  Moreover if someone commented or liked what you’ve shared – that type of data is also included in the downloaded files. Very straightforward and interesting option. You can see conversations you had with other Google+ users. This thing is really cool, although every share/conversation comes in a separate .html file, it is still rather useful to see your habits.

My final service I have data for is Google Voice. I want to mention that I love GVoice, it is a wonderful VOIP service and you get a phone number you can use wherever you are either through your cell phone provider or through Wi-Fi. In the downloaded file there are data included for missed calls, recorded voice messages with the voice file as well as transcription, calls you’ve made and of course the text messages (conversations) I had with various friends.

Finally, because I’ve opted out from Latitude and Web Search History information,  I have no data about that. The last four options (Drive, Picasa, Google+ stream and Google Voice) are central for me and I am very happy I could see what I’ve posted, shared, talked about, etc.

On the other hand I am a little bit worried that I’ve put so much information about myself in the services of only one company – I have also a gmail account, Android tablet, and a Google Nexus Android phone, which is connected to my email address.

And after reading recently In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives I am somewhat worried by all the data the company is collecting about its users. I know what some of you reading this would say – if you don’t want to share personal data with a company, then do not use the services, for me this is a talk from the past. There is no way to remain as a cast off in a disconnected island somewhere without ever using a service. Our world is changing and our understanding for privacy has changed dramatically over the years, though I still believe rules should be enforced for protecting user data. That is why I like almost all EU rules on customer data protection, regardless the difficulty for companies and countries of implementing them.

In some way I do not mind my data being used for research purposes – after all through such data Googlers are able to develop new and exciting services which I love to try, because through data our imagination leads us to uncharted innovative territories and we should not be afraid to dart there. But as a user, I want to be certain my data will not be used for some additional benefits as selling it to the highest bidder for whatever purposes. Some advertising targeted by my personal data is acceptable, even useful every now and again, as long as I have an option to control, monitor and remove my data.

As a conclusion, I know that all the companies follow their own interests and agendas and are happy that users are sharing more information about themselves, but for emotional reasons I am more inclined to trust Google with my data, instead of Facebook. This is one of the reasons why I decreased my Facebook usage dramatically, mostly for working purposes and to see some friends, I know that regardless my deleting stuff from the account, these data is still somewhere in a Facebook data center2, accessible to God only knows who.

 

  1. To learn more about what is included in the Facebook data: Accessing your Facebook Info
  2. Facebook states that it deletes some data from its servers, while keeps other, without mentioning which – you can read their policy from What happens to content (posts, pictures, etc) that I delete from Facebook?

Krisi

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