Facebook, Google, Instagram: Privacy doesn't exist

Bob's Tech Talk

Q. Is there a way for me to figure out what Facebook knows about me?

A. Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself. That might sound like a joke, but I am dead serious.

Facebook not only knows everything you have ever told it, it also knows everything your “friends” have told it about you.

And by “friends” I mean every connection between anyone you interact with, from actual friends to a random page you “liked” five years ago. Facebook never forgets.

Facebook also likes to “share” your information. And by “share” I mean sell your time and attention to almost anyone willing to pay for it. And I mean anyone. I have seen ads on Facebook that no reputable newspaper or television station I know would ever publish.

I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, back when membership consisted mostly of college students. Since then I have watched it grow from about 100 million users to several billion. During these years, the cycle of “apology followed by promises to do better” has been repeated many times, and I have yet to see meaningful change. I do not expect anything different this time around.

To view most of what Facebook knows about you, download a backup of your history to a computer. Go to facebook.com/settings and find the bottom of the general account section. Click “Download a copy” and follow the instructions. A few minutes later, the resulting download will reveal some of what Facebook knows about you.

Be prepared to be reminded of things you thought were long forgotten.

Q. The recent news headlines about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica seem pretty bad. Is Google any safer?

A. The question of relative safety is hard to answer, because the core services provided by each company are different. Google indexes information to answer your questions, while Facebook aggregates information about you and allows you to share it with others.

Hiding beneath those differences is a lot of overlap, because both Facebook and Google make money the same way: harvesting consumer data and selling your attention to advertisers.

Both services track your location carefully. Each one offers add-on services such as email, photo storage, and more. Google and Facebook also provide platforms where other developers can build applications, further muddying the waters of who exactly has access to your information.

Your Google history is a deep well of information. What you watch on YouTube, or who you contact via gmail. All of this data generates a cloud of very personal information about you.

To see what Google knows about you, check out the link below in Wander the Web.

Q. Compared to Facebook and Google, the privacy issues surrounding Instagram seem mild. After all, I do not share much besides snapshots. Is it safe to assume my data is private with Instagram?

A. It is not. But then I bet most readers suspected I would say that before they finished reading the question.

Inference is a powerful tool. After reading two responses about privacy dangers, some readers might infer – or guess – the general theme of the third.

The power of inference combined with machine learning and image recognition technology is something straight out of science fiction.

Today’s phones and computers can recognize most items in an image instantly. They can tell you had a hot dog at the county fair last July. They know where you spend most of your time by scanning the backgrounds in those selfies you like to take. They know where you went on your last vacation, what products are in your house, and whether you own a pet, the list goes on. All by recognizing the pixels in every image you share.

Keep in mind that Instagram is owned by Facebook, so all that data you are sharing goes directly into the Facebook databank. (And it is not reported as part of the download described in the earlier question.)

There is no way to participate online without leaving a trail of personal data behind. That data can be used to persuade you, manipulate your opinion, or reveal your most private thoughts. All of us need to recognize this reality, and the sooner, the better.

Wander the Web

The Privacy Nightmare Explained

This 20-minute Ted Talk is a plain-language look at the dangers made possible by collecting too much personal information.


Google Searches You

It is only slightly tongue-in-cheek to suggest that each time you search Google, Google searches you. You can get an idea of what Google knows about you from this site.


Surveillance Self-Defense

This project from the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a collection of guides that describe best practices to protect your personal information and security online.


A tech enthusiast his entire life, Bob can be contacted at techtalk@bobdel.com.

Author Bio

A tech enthusiast his entire life, Bob can be contacted at techtalk@bobdel.com