October is here, which according to Millennials means it is officially “Spooky Season.”
And while Texas is home to a number of haunted houses and spooky events that will surely raise your blood pressure and lead to a scream or two, I went down a rabbit hole that can give you that same fix at no cost. Only rather than Jason’s classically eerie hockey mask, it is your own data that companies have on you.
While we do not have access to all the data social media companies have on us, I have pulled together a few resources below that will provide you a snapshot of what companies have. Be forewarned, it’s worse and far more comprehensive than you think.
If you have a Google account—which includes Gmail, YouTube, etc.—they likely have gigabytes of data on you. For example, my Google data is 17.75 GB, which equates to approximately 13 million Word documents. While that size would give even the most casual user pause, the types of data they have is even scarier.
For those that have not paused location tracking on their Google account (which you can do here, though note that it is not off as your location can still be saved when using other Google sites and apps), you can see a timeline of everywhere you have been since using Google on your phone here. I sent this around the office, and many co-workers were shocked to find how precisely Google tracked vacations, including road trips that were taken, walking routes and stops along the way, specific locations where pictures were taken, how long it took to get from point-to-point, etc.
It is unsurprising that Google archives everything you have ever searched on each of your devices, including search history that has been deleted. That information can be found here, and stretches as far back as you have been using Google. You can also access all of your YouTube search history here.
For third-party services and apps you opted to create an account with using Google, Google has all that information as well here. Note that, despite the convenience of signing into your Chick-fil-A app using Google rather than typing in a unique username and password, Google makes it clear that “you gave these sites and apps access to some of your Google Account data, including info that may be sensitive.”
While this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding private information Google stores on you, much of this information is used to feed into personalizing your ads and Google services. To see your advertisement profile on Google, click here.
Finally, Google offers one additional primary link to access your data. With Google Takeout, they allow you to export a fairly comprehensive copy of your information, which includes your entire Chrome history, contact information, health data, Drive files that have long been deleted, location history, activity across Google services and third-party websites, and much more. This is effectively a “one-stop-shop” to download all information they have on you that they elect to share, and what they strategically omit in granularity is made up for in its gargantuan scope.
Facebook also has an option that allows you to access scores of data that you likely thought to be long gone—or perhaps hoped was long gone. Specifically, by accessing the following link, I was able to retrieve just shy of 800 MB of information and data Facebook has on me.
It usually takes a few days for Meta to package and send all the information your way, but once received, it is organized and broken down into specific categories. Some of these include:
- Your search history
- Your address books
- Locations where you have used Facebook
- Advertisers you have interacted with
- Your likes and interests
- Behavioral information on you based on friends and interactions
- Facebook Messenger messages
- All sent or received files
And the list goes on.
As sweeping as this quantity and scope of data is, it is safe to assume what you download from Facebook—and from Google—is not the whole picture. And we can safely assume this because of insights revealed by two senior Facebook engineers during a court hearing over private user information in March. They testified on what information Facebook stores about us, and where it is located. When the engineers were asked the simple question of where user data is stored, Facebook Engineering Director Eugene Zarashaw responded: “I don’t believe there’s a single person that exists who could answer that question. It would take a significant team effort to even be able to answer that question.”
Certainly, we can acknowledge that there is effort on the part of Google and Facebook to include these tools on their websites. Many other websites and social media platforms do not provide transparency. However, it does not change what is a stark reality:
- We unwittingly give over a stunning amount of data to large businesses.
- We have almost no control over the data they are collecting on us.
- We still do not know if this is all of the data these companies collect on us.
- We don’t know where this data is stored, or who else has access to it.
When confronted by the vast amount of data large tech companies collect on us with almost no accountability, it is entirely reasonable to wish for them to stop. And this is precisely why TPPF has advanced a plan for a Digital Bill of Rights, which would give us the right to know, to delete and correct information, and to opt-out of data collection practices, among other data privacy protections.
If you interact with the above links, chances are you’ll consider packing up any Halloween decorations and skipping straight to Christmas. Or, if you’re so inclined, perhaps ditch your costume idea and instead opt for a t-shirt with the above links in QR Code format across it if you’re vying for the scariest costume.