This past week, it was revealed that Facebook has been providing our information to third parties. Surprise, surprise.
Granted, it’s never been a huge secret that, with services like Facebook and Google, these websites we are pouring ourselves into are collecting a massive amount of data on us, and I think it is a fact that we all, truthfully, knew and ignored. Whatever Facebook has done to us, we were the ones who allowed it to get away with it. We were the ones who provided our information- our very digital lives- to the service. We quickly clicked “agree” to sharing our information with apps connecting to Facebook.
In some cases- in many- it was a matter of convenience, at least for me. If I was signing up for a new app or website, and they offered to sign you up using your Facebook account, it was a simple matter of clicking the Facebook icon and clicking “agree” to transfer your Facebook credentials (and whatever else the app or website asked for) in lieu of taking the time to fill in the information ourselves.
Below, you’ll see exactly all the information one “quiz” app had access to:
Clicking “agree” so blindly has given unprecedented access to thousands of websites and companies with whom we might not have so willingly shared that data. If we had considered it thoroughly, we might have questioned whether Words With Friends or TeeFury.com (two of the 208 apps I found in my Facebook settings with access to my information) really needed all of that info.
Of course, most of these companies are probably benign. I really don’t think TeeFury.com was using my social media to sway me in the Presidential election. But we now know that Cambridge Analytica did do this to millions of people. And while I don’t see Cambridge Analytica showing up as one of the 208 apps to whom I’ve handed over my digital car keys, that doesn’t mean they don’t have information on me; all it takes is just one of those companies- like TeeFury.com or Words With Friends- to sell the data that they’ve collected to third parties. Cambridge Analytica came through quiz apps, not unlike the one to the left which had access to everything from my work history and friends to my religious beliefs and political views. Do you know how many seemingly benign quizzes I’ve taken on Facebook? And with each one of them, that quick “agree” to allow it to see your Facebook data.
I’ve got 208 apps that I’ve “agreed” to allow access to my information. While TeeFury.com may want access to my photos to be able to print them on a t-shirt (at my request, of course), I’ve also given them access to my posts, my comments, my likes, and whatever else they feel curious enough to peruse. And there are apps in my list that I don’t recognize, I don’t remember. Apps that I could swear I’ve never used, never agreed to, but I probably did, once, to do one thing- like a quiz to tell me which Harry Potter character I am- and they’ve had access to my data ever since. Apps like a launcher for my Android phone, and plugins for other programs. Even Medium is listed there (Medium has only requested my profile name and photo, friends list, and email address, as well as the ability to post to Facebook when I publish here). And once they have access, it is a true pain to control what they have access to. Sure, I can go in and uncheck any one of those blue circles to revoke that access, but you have to do that with every single app. It is time consuming, to say the least, and that’s when you are aware of what permissions they’ve been granted in the first place. I wouldn’t have even known to go into these apps and revoke their permissions if it hadn’t been for the news about Cambridge Analytica. Facebook hasn’t been proactively policing the apps with permissions, or asking me to review access I’ve given to certain apps. And they certainly haven’t made it easy to remove multiple apps from these permissions, or set a service-wide block on select permissions to stop any and all apps from accessing data I don’t want released (but if you want to, here’s how).
This is a mess, and it is a mess we created ourselves. We, as an instant gratification society, have done this to ourselves. Every time we saved two minutes by logging in with Facebook instead of creating a limited profile on a new website, every time we’ve clicked on a quiz and hastily given it permission to access our Facebook content. We did this. And we can stop it now, we can close the door, we can remove the apps and permissions, but the data we’ve already shared is still out there. And Facebook is still very opaque about our information.
At least Facebook is apologizing:
Facebook’s apology comes over a week after the news was reported, and while it promises to do more in the future (and that they should’ve done more in the past), only time will tell if Facebook is willing to learn from this mistake. But like the Equifax breach last year, apologies are more “my bad” and less “let me help.” It’s a nice sentiment that Facebook is aware they “done messed up,” but until we start seeing a change, it’s just words (and not with friends, anymore).
But maybe we shouldn’t give Facebook time. Maybe we should make Facebook go the way of MySpace. Facebook is a powerful company, but we give it that power. We, the users, are all they have. If we decide to abandon Facebook, I think, maybe, they’ll learn the lesson that it isn’t good enough to be reactive when things like this happen, but they need to be on top of things before they happen. They should have been cracking down on fake news before fake news became a newsworthy term. They should have been cracking down on protecting our information from third parties like Cambridge Analytica before Cambridge Analytica could even get that data.
Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. Didn’t. Facebook has already failed its users, and it has failed us spectacularly.
“The battle’s done, and we kinda won, so we sound our victory cheer… where do we go from here?”
But where can we go? It’s simple enough to say you’re going to delete your Facebook account. And, frankly, that’s probably the best solution right now; deleting the apps is a Band-Aid, deleting Facebook is a cure. But for people like me, I actually use Facebook. I use it to share my photography. I use it to stay connected with family members and friends.
Or do I? I haven’t actually uploaded much photography lately; I do that primarily on 500px. And I look at photos and posts of family and friends, but I rarely communicate with them through the platform.
Of course, if it is simply connections that people want to maintain, it is possible to nearly abandon Facebook, and keep Messenger. After all, I don’t have Facebook on my phone these days, but Messenger is a mainstay. Though Messenger, too, is under fire now, specifically for Android users, where it has been gathering data on contacts, SMS text messaging, and phone calls (thankfully Apple’s walled garden has kept iOS users safe). And there are other ways to share photos and connect to friends and family.
But, if you are thinking of abandoning Facebook, be mindful of what Facebook owns. It owns the popular photo sharing site, Instagram, and the Messenger alternative, WhatsApp.
There are alternatives to Facebook, but they don’t have nearly the reach that Facebook does. Twitter is possibly the most popular alternative, but to me it has never been so much a means for keeping in touch rather than shouting out to the world (see: Donald Trump and his daily tweetstorms). Another that springs to mind for me is Google +, which was meant to be Google’s answer to Facebook, though it never gained enough traction (but it is entirely still around, and everyone who has a Google account already technically has a Google + profile). Of course, as this whole article speaks on how wary I am about the sheer amount of data being given out, Google should probably be my next concern; running to them could be leaving the frying pan for the fire.
For me, for now, I’m keeping Facebook, but I’m keeping it on a leash. I’m deleting the apps that I don’t want to have access to my data (it is taking forever, still 107 to go; afterwards I may proactively look to do the same with apps I’ve logged into using my Google account), I’m downloading the data Facebook has on me, and I’m making sure not to sign into any app or website with Facebook (and if it prompts me to do so, I’m questioning whether or not I need that service enough to provide it any information at all). The app is deleted from my phone and my computer, though Messenger remains (again, I’m glad I’m on an iPhone, for once). And I’m actively shopping around for alternatives.
That said, I’m already looking forward to a Facebook-free future. Even before this fiasco, I’ve wanted to leave the platform, if not for the data I knew it was collecting, than for the sheer amount of time spent on the website. And definitely, in the future, I’m going to be keeping a very close eye on anyone who requests my information.
In my quest to defang Facebook, I discovered several interesting things. Not only were there 208 apps that were granted access to at least some part of my information (now, several hours later, widdled down to a reasonable and lucky 13), there’s also a setting called “Apps Others Use,” which, when turned on, grants access to your information to apps that your friends are using. See here:
Of course, I unchecked every. Single. Damn. Box.
Over the course of my app-deleting rampage, I also discovered at least a dozen quiz apps, each one granted the fullest extent of my data. I found an app simply titled “Social Media,” and several apps who’s names I don’t recall at all. Some, as other articles detailing this event had mentioned, are dead apps- websites and services that no longer exist, and yet still have access to data (whether that data is actually going somewhere or could be retrieved from these shut down locations, I haven’t the foggiest).
There’s also what I’ve heard called the Facebook “kill switch.” Facebook calls it “Platform:”
Now, I haven’t decided to flick this switch yet. As I said, I left 13 legitimate apps with access to my Facebook, stuff that I use, including Apple Music, Microsoft, my Bible app (YouVersion), and even Medium itself. Turning off Platform, by the language of it, appears to disable these. It also causes every post I’ve made through any of these apps to be deleted from Facebook- I fear that would mean all the articles I’ve written on Medium and shared through Facebook would leave my Facebook page (as well as any comments on them). All the photos I’ve shared through 500px would go, too. So I’d recommend if anyone is considering this option as the last resort before closing their Facebook account (and this is the last resort), consider it carefully.
That said, I couldn’t tell you what I posted on my Facebook page last week. So turning off Platform and losing all those posts, really, wouldn’t make me lose a minute of sleep, because honestly, I wouldn’t even know what I’d lost (if anything, it would just mean my “On This Day” section would be shorter).
The real question is this: if I turned off Platform, or even if I deleted my Facebook account entirely, would I lose anything of true importance?
Well, I just finished downloading my Facebook data (over 500mb); let’s find out.
Data, Data, Data
It took a while to download everything from Facebook, and the results were… meh. I was able to get every photo ever uploaded to the site (I’ll have to take their word for it) as well as every video and even the ones sent within messages. These are all out of context, though.
Beyond that information, the main thing Facebook includes is links to online sources, such as a complete transcript of your Timeline, and every comment ever on every post ever.
But the data they don’t provide in the download- at least not that I’ve found yet- is what of your personal info has gone to third parties. The download will show you all the apps you have connected as well as advertisers who have personal information on you, but it doesn’t disclose what information they have, besides saying your “contact info.” And even still, that list seems suspiciously small.
Maybe I’m just paranoid. At this point, Facebook’s got to expect a lot of paranoia, though. They’ve seriously fractured our trust. It’s gonna take a lot to win it back.
That’s all for now.
Update #2: I Want To Break Free
It’s been a heavy news week for Facebook. Tapping Android phones, deleting damning memos. And, of course, the big memo that didn’t get deleted before Buzzfeed got hold of it.
And I’m growing weary. I’m beginning to feel that my decision on Facebook is not going to be decided based on my personal feelings about my personal data, but by moral direction. Can I, in good moral standing, continue to use a service that is this casual with people’s personal data, with their very lives?
Should I trust Facebook to get their shit together? Haven’t they already royally broken that trust? Should I trust a company that is reportedly shredding memos and deleting comments to avoid further bad press? Should I give my business to a company that has said this:
“Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good. It is perhaps the only area where the metrics do tell the true story as far as we are concerned. That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”
This is update #2. I’m still deciding on my future with Facebook. I’ve got one foot out of the door, already. I know I don’t want to stay. But I know there are some useful parts of Facebook that I would still utilize every day, like Instagram (which I’ve only just started using more often) and Messenger. And I know I can disable my Facebook account and still use these services. But Facebook still owns them. And I need to make a very real decision on whether or not Facebook will be allowed in my life any longer.
It is honestly scary to think of a world without Facebook. Thinking about how hard it was to stay in contact with friends who moved across the country, or family that you don’t see very often. Sure, you can always text or call, but keeping in touch was always easier when you saw them posting pictures of the baby or commenting on a recent movie.
Advertising, too, is a big cost. I share all of my Medium articles on my Facebook page. I share my photography on Facebook. And when I finally finish my book, I planned to use Facebook to promote it. And even if I don’t, I’m sure any publisher will.
But a world with Facebook is also scary. I recently watched The Circle, and while the movie really has an Apple vibe to it, it is clearly more representative of the dangers of companies like Facebook and Google, companies that we pour our personal lives into without regard to protecting our privacy. It is almost a Black Mirror episode, a tale of technology gone too far. And it is a very real future we could find ourselves in.
But I think, right now, in the present, Facebook has a lot to answer for.
This update is a warning to Facebook. I’ve defanged your website, Facebook, I’ve removed every app that had access to my information. I can’t do much about the information that is already out there, but I can for damn sure dam up the flow of information going forward. I’ve disabled Platform, I’ve disabled Apps Others Use (Facebook, too, seems to have removed these settings since I disabled them last week, stating they were “outdated”), and I’ve deleted the apps off all my devices (I only access Facebook through the web browser on my computer, now). I’m still actively shopping around for an alternative, and I’m still deciding, morally, whether I should continue to support Facebook or not.
Right now, Facebook, the ball is in your court. How you handle yourselves for the next few weeks, how you handle our privacy and our information going forward, how you handle fake news (not Donald Trump’s definition, but, you know, real fake news), and your ends justifying the means, will determine whether I keep my Facebook account or abandon the platform altogether.