Since October 2010, Facebook users have been able to download a copy of some of the data they have shared from the social network. However, the selection of this data was rather limited: only including photos, posts, messages, list of friends and chat conversations. Although that does seem like a hefty amount of information, if you think about all the things a user can potentially do on Facebook – check into places, decline friend requests, comment on friend’s posts or photos and more– there is a plethora of data that Facebook doesn’t want to part with.
The social network acknowledged this and last week it announced that even more data history will be available for download: “Now you can access additional categories of information, including previous names, friend requests you’ve made and IP addresses you logged in from.”
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the tracking and data that Facebook has on its users. Take this USA Today article that outlines everything Facebook has in its file. Alarming as it might seem that the network tracks IP addresses, it also knows a few other “unique characteristics of your PC and browser… such as… screen resolution, operating system and browser version.”
The collecting of the IP address, even though is not a new practice, is still rather startling. Facebook knows exactly where in the world you are every time you log on to the network. However, you can protect yourself and block Facebook from this information by employing a software called a virtual private network (VPN). With a VPN, like Private WiFi, all of your data going in and out is encrypted through a secure connection which is established by hiding your IP address and using one from a remote sever. As a result, your location will appear to be from the server’s location. Thus removing this essential piece of data out of Facebook’s hands.
However, even if you do use a VPN and disguise your IP address, Facebook is still testing the limits. According to the NY Times, even with the new data access for users, the network is still in violation of many European privacy laws. Thus, Facebook is required to give any European user who requests it via this Personal Data Request form a full copy of his or her data, not just the aforementioned bit above.
But for everyone else, data is still being withheld. In that same NY Times article, Max Schrems, a German law student who, after requesting his full data download filed the complaint against Facebook, stated, “With the changes, Facebook will only offer access to 39 data categories, while it is holding at least 84 such data categories about every user.”
Other privacy and internet experts are sharing the same sentiment. Dennis O’Reilly from CNet writes, “Facebook isn’t likely to voluntarily disclose everything it knows about you — that data is the company’s bread and butter.” He explains later on in his article, “Much of the personal data’s value is the result of its exclusivity. The more people who have access to the information, the less it’s worth to the online advertising networks… If Facebook users had all the information the company collects about them, what would stop customers from selling the information themselves or finding some other profitable use for it?”
But remember, with a VPN, you can stop Facebook from knowing one thing about you: your IP address.