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Can you really delete Facebook data?

As its co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress about a data, Facebook gave users access to the data it had shared with data brokers and advertisers, including login information, deleted friends and even offline activity. Brian Chen of the New York Times found this out by tracking his own data, which he discusses with Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress this past week there were many unanswered questions including why users can’t always remove data, why and how Facebook is tracking non-users of the site and what the company considers private information. The New York Times lead consumer technology writer Brian X. Chen took a look at what information Facebook retained about him and was surprised by what he found. As he put it, in a word, “yikes.” He joins me now from San Francisco. So what did you find?

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    So you know I was expecting this to not be surprising or interesting at all. I don’t really use Facebook very often and I don’t really post very much I don’t really click ads my profile is pretty slim. So when I opened it it was kind of just blew up in my face. There is this list of 500 different advertisers that had my contact information. Most of those advertisers I had never heard of. There is a list of friends I had deleted over the past 14 years. More than 100 people. And the other things I noticed was there is a complete log in history and history and every time I open a Facebook app including which device I used and what day it was and sometimes the location was tied to that information. So you could see a pretty detailed history of how and when and where I was using Facebook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now what about the unfriended list. That’s a little bizarre. The people who you have actively unfriended were still on a list somewhere and you couldn’t do anything about that.

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    Yeah. So I had over 100 people that I unfriended and the date that I unfriended them their explanation was they have a feature called “On This Day,” which is like a tool to help people reminisce on past memories. So the reason they keep the removed friends list is so that they don’t surface memories with those friends that you remove because you know you probably hate them or never want to talk to them again or see them again you know. But I still found it at odds with Mark Zuckerberg statement this week which is that anything you do we do we did for good.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know let’s talk a little bit also about how the acquired information on your Web site accompanying your story. There was a video by one of your colleagues Kevin Roose and it looked at what you buy as a category of information that Facebook tries to gather data on let’s take a look at that clip.

  • CLIP:

    But when most people don’t realize is that they have ways of tracking your offline purchases as well. For many years Facebook has had partnerships with data brokers that collected information about people’s purchases. So for example if you buy a burrito with your credit card Facebook could know about the transaction match it with a credit card that you’ve had to face before Facebook Messenger and start showing you ads for indigestion.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right so that is something that I don’t think most people recognize is that they don’t necessarily have to be a Facebook user or there’s still a vault of information being gathered about them by this company in addition to all these other companies that have been in the business of gathering data about us.

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    Yes it’s generally true that people who don’t use Facebook there’s information collected about them as well especially using these tools called Web Trackers which follow your web browsing activities and collect information on things like your IP address your potentially your contact information if you fill out a form things like that and advertisers are able to use that to build a profile on you.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    With the information that’s kind of been revealed in the past couple of weeks and months. How should we be better Facebook users?

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    Delete your account. I’m just kidding. I think there’s a number of things that you can do to minimize the amount of information that’s collected about you. You can run these Web tracker blockers and use browsers that are more safely guarding your privacy like the Firefox focused browser for example tracker blockers like there’s one called Disconnect. Me is quite effective. Beyond that I would probably tweak my privacy settings on Facebook to share a little bit about yourself as you can publicly. And keep in mind that anything that you upload onto Facebook just might stay there forever because clearly they don’t seem to do things that you remove.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well we should mention and you did so in your article as well. Facebook is not alone in doing this. Google is another company that has a pretty significant vault of information on you.

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    So Facebook is really just the tip of the iceberg right. So Google has way more advertisements and trackers running across the web than Facebook I think out of the Million top Web sites 75 percent of them are running Google ads and trackers versus 25 percent for Facebook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what is the justification of these companies are likely to give for tracking users at this granular level? What does it help them do?

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    The simplest explanation is it helps them serve target advertising. And I think the general industry explanation is just simply that target advertising is a good thing for the user. And you know of course for the ad business. So I think they’re trying to make the best of both worlds.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Brian Chen of The New York Times joining us from San Francisco tonight.

  • BRIAN CHEN:

    Thanks so much hey thank you for having me.

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