(Update: Facebook says it's changing how you can access and change your privacy settings. Details are here.)

Tough times for Facebook--and they're only getting worse. The FTC is investigating, the privacy and data scandal isn't going away, and the #deletefacebook movement continues to pick up momentum. And a lot of people are wondering just  what kind of information Facebook has on them.

Recently, we explained how to find all the apps that Facebook is sharing your information with. I had more than 130 on my account--which I thought was a huge number until I sat down with some colleagues at work and they realized they had 200 or 300 or more.

Now, we'll go through an even more essential exercise: how to download the entire archive of information that Facebook says it has for you--in just a few quick steps. If you haven't done it already, you'll probably want to stop what you're doing and grab it all now.

How to get your data

In typical Facebook fashion, it's easy to get this data, but only if you know exactly where to look. That's what I'm here for.

  1. Click this link. You're looking for facebook.com/settings. If for some strange reason that doesn't work, on desktop, you want to click the little upside-down triangle in the upper right-hand corner, then drop down and click "Settings."
  2. Click where it says "Download Archive." You will likely have to reenter your password. Facebook will need about 10 or 15 minutes to compile your data and will send you a link via email to get your information.
  3. Check your email spam folder; the message Facebook sent me wasn't readily visible in my inbox. The subject should read "Your Facebook download is ready." Click the link in your email and you'll be sent back to Facebook again--and probably have to enter your password once more. (This is a good thing; there's a lot of personal information in the files they're sending you.)
  4. Click the "Download Archive" button on this second screen, and you'll download a .zip file that should be called: "facebook-YOURUSERNAME.zip." Extract the files by clicking on the .zip file in most cases, and you'll wind up with a series of folders. There should be a file called simply "index.html."
  5. Click on that, and the archive should open in your browser.

So, what's in the archive?

Depending on how long you've been on Facebook and how active a user you've been, you might want to have a cup of coffee or something. There could be a lot to look at.

You'll want to start with the index.html file, because when you click on that, it will open a locally hosted webpage in your default browser. That will allow you to navigate through everything as you would any webpage, with links for Profile, Contact Info, Timeline, Photos, Videos, Friends, Messages, Pokes (remember those?), Events, Security, Ads, and Applications on the left side of the page.

In my case, I found the data to be stunning in terms of its breadth--but also its incompleteness. In some cases, it might be a matter of simple mistakes; in other cases, I think I might have intentionally given Facebook bad data. Some of this was more than a decade ago when I first signed up for Facebook, and I honestly don't remember.

Facebook documents the date on which I became friends with everyone I'm "Facebook friends" with. And I was able to quickly find the first message anyone sent me or posted on my wall. (From my sister, back in April 2007: "Hey Bill--did not know you were on facebook--how are you?")

But at the same time, lots of basic data was either incomplete or wrong, starting with my date of birth and my current city (no need to fix any of that, of course). 

Facebook also seems to think that I was in the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in the U.S. Army (nope), that I watch a lot of Channel 4 (which is in the United Kingdom), and that I'm a big fan of Undercover Boss (which I've seen maybe twice).

I really have no idea how these things popped up so high in my data. And to the extent I'm concerned about privacy, I hope that the bad data will obscure whatever correct info they actually have.

Pages, groups, and ads

Facebook lists an absurd number of pages and groups that I've become a fan of and joined; 376 pages and 89 groups. These are probably legit, even though I hardly remember most of them. It also illustrates just how many posts could potentially wind up in any person's feed at any time.

I'm also an administrator of 68 pages myself. That's a little misleading because I've created a lot of pages over the years that I never wound up developing, but I do work on a lot of pages for my day job, and I've got a few other side projects that involved Facebook pages, too.

The ads were almost more surprising: 34 advertisers supposedly have my contact information. But I don't care about many of them--two supermarket chains that doesn't have any stores anywhere near where I live, for example, and the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper in Australia.

In fact, the lesson I take away from this actually goes the other way: It makes me a little more concerned about all the money advertisers have all spent on Facebook ads over the years--because if the information they're showing about me is so inaccurate, who knows what the info on anyone I've been targeting is like?

So where does this leave Facebook in my eyes? The privacy issues are disturbing, for sure. But I have to admit, I enjoyed flipping through more than 10 years of photos and videos, some of which I hadn't thought of or seen in a very long time.

And despite all the recent revelations, I'm grateful that this thing exists, because it's how I first got back in touch with my college girlfriend, many years after we broke up. We'll be married five years soon. So I can understand #deletefacebook, but I probably won't delete Facebook.

Published on: Mar 27, 2018