You've likely heard by now about Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy, Trump-affiliated data analysis firm that reportedly siphoned off information belonging to 50 million Facebook users, according to The Guardian and Observer, along with The New York Times. In the wake of the scandal over Facebook's privacy practices, users have become newly interested in the data that Facebook collects and retains about them. But while the social network makes it fairly simple to download everything it knows about you, it doesn't provide a roadmap for how to parse that data or figure out what it means.
Facebook announced Wednesday, however, that in the coming weeks, it will expand the data it allows you to download to include likes, reactions, search history, and location history. The social network also plans to add an option for users to transfer the data to another service if they want. Part of the rollout includes a new tool called Access Your Information, which allows users to more easily view and delete old posts, reactions, comments, and search history.
For now though, your Facebook data is still likely filled of surprises. Over the weekend, some Android users were shocked to learn that Facebook retained metadata about their call and SMS history. That's far from the only interesting piece of information you might find by sorting through your Facebook file. Here's what I found looking through mine, and tips for how to find the most interesting information in yours.
Get the Goods
First, you'll need to download the file of data that Facebook has on you. To do so, go to your Facebook settings. At the bottom of the General tab, you should see an option to Download a copy of your Facebook data_. After opting in, you'll receive two emails, one acknowledging that Facebook received your request, and another that includes the file when it's ready. Depending on how much content you've posted to Facebook—including photos, videos, text posts, and other forms of media—it might take some time for the file to be prepared.
I've been on Facebook for over a decade, and my 277.2 MB file was ready within a half hour. But I also haven't uploaded many photos or videos to the site. Once you have the file, you can download it as a folder to your desktop. Mine was labeled "facebook-louisematsakis."
The first piece of information you will want to look at is a file labeled index.htm. Clicking on this file will open a tab within your browser, with a menu of options on the left-hand side. Under Profile, you'll find a list of basic information the site has about you, like the exact time you signed up for Facebook, the contact information you've provided, as well as any work or education history.
One surprising piece of information on this screen: Facebook keeps a list of everyone you've previously said you were in a relationship with. For me, this includes a bunch of my friends, because back in middle and high school, it was cool to declare you were in a relationship with a close friend. The list only includes three people I've actually dated. The very first person on the list is, inexplicably, my own cousin (being 13 was weird, OK?).
Photos, Videos, and Friends
The Photos tab contains every photo you've ever uploaded to the site, as well as related metadata, like the IP address from which each photo was uploaded. Scroll down, and you'll find a link to the facial recognition data that Facebook retains. If you click it, you can see your Example Count, which could be the number of photos Facebook used to train a machine learning algorithm to recognize your face. My Example Count is 214. Facebook says this figure is "a unique number based on a comparison of the photos you're tagged in. We use this data to help others tag you in photos."
If you want to opt-out of Facebook's facial recognition features, here’s how to do that.
One interesting note about photos: My Facebook data didn’t appear to included tagged photos of me, just photos I had uploaded myself.
The Videos tab contained dozens of clips I posted to my friends' timelines when I was a teenager. It's impressive how much you can forget what you shared over the years; I was horrified to realize that Facebook had so many grainy videos of my face at 13, 14, and 15 years old. Also fun? If you recorded a video on Facebook but never actually posted it, Facebook still has it.
In the Friends tab you'll find every single one of your Facebook friends, as well as the date that you added each other. If you unfriended someone, and then re-added them later, they'll show up on this list twice. The list also includes all of the friend requests that you have declined.
Pay special attention to the very bottom of the page, where you can see what "Friend Peer Group" Facebook thinks you're in. Mine says "Starting Adult Life."
Advertising & Other Weird Info
The most interesting part of your index is the Ads tab. There, Facebook will show you a list of ad categories it has associated with your account. Mine include dozens of publications like Harper's and Buzzfeed, as well as vexing ones like "Goth subculture" and "Middle Class."
I have certainly poked people on Facebook more times than this.
Below this list you'll find advertisements you've supposedly clicked on; mine has 40, dating back to January. And below that is a distressing list of advertisers Facebook says "have your contact information." (Former Facebook ad executive Antonio García Martínez suggests that this means the advertisers came to Facebook with your information, not the other way around.) They may have brought this information to the social network using Facebook's custom audience tool, according to a Facebook representative. For me, this includes major corporations like Walmart, ASOS, Airbnb, and Marriott Rewards. It also includes a number of bands, the dating app Happn, which I don't recall ever using, and "House of Blues Dallas." I have never been to Dallas.
One data set seems surprisingly incomplete; under Pokes I was inexplicably greeted by only two pokes, one from 2013 and another from last year. I have certainly poked people on Facebook more times than this. It's unclear why Facebook has only chosen to retain these two poking instances, though other users appear to have experienced the same oversight. Facebook didn't answer a request for comment about why it has only kept track of a select list of pokes.
The last thing to check in your index is the Applications tab, which is a list of apps you've used to sign up with using your Facebook profile.
Aside from the index, your Facebook data file should also include several other folders, labeled html, messages, photos, and videos. Mostly they repeat information that’s also included in the index. Don't skip them altogether though. In Messages > files, for instance, are all the files you've sent over Facebook Messenger, and Messages > photos contains all the images you’ve sent. Mine only appear to date back several years, likely because I used to regularly delete my Facebook messages.
Call & SMS Records
If you have an Android device, you may have given Facebook or Facebook Lite permission to access your call and text history years ago. Specifically, before Google changed how permissions worked in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, simply allowing Facebook to access your contacts also let it grab your call and message logs.
Find out for sure by clicking the Contact Info tab. Because I've only ever used an iPhone—Apple doesn't allow apps to scrape call and text history—this tab only contained a list of my phone's contacts. If you have granted permission, this screen will also include a certified creepy list of your call and SMS history.
Get Rid of It
Now that you’ve looked through your Facebook data, here’s how to delete some of it. Keep in mind that Facebook says it plans to soon make it easier to delete data, but for now, the process is fairly cumbersome.
The first place to start is your contacts. First, head over to Facebook’s “Manage Invites and Imported Contacts” page. At the bottom of the screen, there’s an option to “Remove all contacts,” though you can also choose to manually remove specific ones. You’ll need to repeat this step for contacts you’ve uploaded through Facebook Messenger, which you can do here. Lastly, you’ll need to prevent Facebook from continuously re-uploading your contacts. You can learn how to turn off that settings here. Again, you’ll need to do it twice, once on the Facebook App and again on Messenger.
Lastly, here’s how to delete individual posts you’ve made to Facebook. Click the top right-hand options tab on desktop, and then click Activity Log. There, you’ll be able to delete any post from your history, and you can jump to specific years if you’d like to delete the oldest stuff first. If you’re interested in bulk deleting, you can use a Chrome extension like Social Book Post Manager.
If you’re not quite ready mass-remove your old posts, but want to limit who can see them, here’s a full guide to updating your Facebook’s privacy settings. Remember, though, that Facebook says it's going to re-vamp its privacy features in coming weeks—which means you get to do this all over again.