In the immediate aftermath of last week's news that hackers had access to the personal information of about 30 million Facebook users, I got a notification on the top of my own Facebook Timeline. “Update on Security Incident,” it read. Yeah, I was one of the unlucky 30-or-so million. This prompted some rage-deleting.
The details of the attack sparked some of that rage. It’s unclear how much of my own personal information slipped out of Mark Zuckerberg’s grasp and into the claws of hackers, but I do know that some of those in the affected group of users are in bad shape. Facebook says that, for about 400,000 accounts, personal information like “posts on their timelines, their lists of friends, Groups they are members of, and the names of recent Messenger conversations” has been compromised. In one instance, the actual content of Messenger conversations was exposed. Was I that instance? Don’t know. Otherwise, hackers gained access to “gender, locale/language, relationship status, religion, hometown, self-reported current city, birthdate, device types used to access Facebook, education, work, the last 10 places they checked into or were tagged in, website, people or Pages they follow, and the 15 most recent searches” for 14 million users, and basic contact info like phone numbers and email addresses of another 15 million users.
But the real rage of the moment doesn’t stem from this news. After all, two weeks ago, Facebook gave the world a heads up that a massive data breach affected as many as 90 million user accounts, and I had reason to believe I was one of them. So I tried deleting as much personal information from Facebook as I could at the time. Today, I took a second pass and found even deeper layers of data. It’s all led me to understand that I will probably never know how much Facebook knows about me. I’m not even sure Facebook knows how much it knows about me. When hackers break into Facebook, who knows what they know then.
Understanding this, here’s a brief how-to guide. It’s based on my attempts to delete as much identifiable information as possible from my Facebook account without actually deleting the entire account. I’m not ready to go for the full nuclear option yet for various reasons, like the fact that my mum will get upset. I also stopped trusting Facebook a long time ago, and the site bothers me far more often than it helps me. In my mind, keeping my Facebook profile alive is not far off from keeping my Hotmail account active. Might come in handy. Will definitely just fill up with spam for now.
On to the deleting…
The first thing you need to know about nuking your Facebook presence is that Facebook does not want you to do this. At no point in the process did I see a helpful dialog box that said something like, “Hey, it looks like you’re trying to streamline your Facebook presence, let me help you with that.” Facebook makes this tough.
Vigilance is key. So go to Facebook dot com, click to view your profile, and then click the “About” button. This will bring up a nest of menus that makes it pretty easy to edit your profile, but meaningfully harder to delete that information. If your mission is to delete information, however, don’t bother clicking the “Edit Profile” button. This will lead you to a confusing pop up that lets you edit but not remove information. It’s a trick!
So, now you’re on the “About” section. On the left-hand side of the page, you’ll see all the different sections of your profile—stuff like “Overview,” “Work and Education,” “Places You’ve Lived.” All that crap you probably don’t remember adding to your profile. Just go ahead and delete all that.
To do this, start with each section underneath “Overview” and start erasing your life story according to Facebook. Don’t worry, it will feel liberating. “Work and Education,” for example. Anybody worth knowing professionally isn’t drilling into your Facebook profile to find out your credentials, so why surrender the data here.
Just click the “Options” button on the right side of each item. This will reveal a drop-down menu with a “Delete” option. But what’s ridiculous is that clicking that doesn’t actually delete anything, it just prompts you to change the details. So you have to select the “Remove [whatever]” radio button from there, click Save, and then it’s gone.
Buckle up. The rest of this experience is equally misleading and frustrating. Deleting “Places You’ve Lived” is about as easy as deleting your old jobs. Things get tricky when you get to “Contact and Basic Info,” however.
The trouble with Facebook knowing your really personal information—stuff like your phone number and birthday—is that Facebook really wants this essential demographic data. That means you can’t delete it. Well, you can delete your phone number, but then you’ll lose the ability to easily access two-factor authentication. Facebook will also take you to account settings to do these things, where you might have a hard time finding your way back to the mass-deleting sandbox where you’d been playing.
Meanwhile, you can change your birthday to a fake birthday, but Facebook won’t actually let you leave that field blank. Gender is similarly required. You can pick “Male,” “Female,” or “Custom.” You can’t leave it blank.
Keep working your way down the left-hand side of the page to get rid of more personal information. Clearing out “Family and Relationships” will make sure nobody knows about your dating life or that time you added your old flatmate as a half-brother. Getting rid of “Details About You” will get rid of the profound-sounding poem you dug out of a notebook a few years ago. Deleting “Life Events” actually means that you have to remove posts from your Timeline that had been marked as Life Events, which can be as innocuous as “Got new glasses” or as profound as “Born.” Facebook doesn’t need to store any of this information for you.
Now for more adjusting…
So far we’ve been deleting information that you or people you know added to your Facebook profile. There’s another scary section of your settings that deal with information about you that Facebook’s algorithms compiled based on your online activity. I’m talking about the ad shit.
To get here, click the little arrow on the upper right-hand corner of your profile and then go to “Settings.” Then, in teeny, tiny type on the left-hand side of the page, you’ll see “Ads,” and clicking that will take you to a sprawling new section called “Your Ad Preferences.” This is where Facebook informs you about what kinds of things it thinks you like, and luckily, you have the option to view and remove certain topics. Just for fun, click on “Your Interest” and start deleting everything you see. Be aware there are different categories you have to click through, and some of the results get pretty weird.
These topics do refresh on a regular basis, so you’re not deleting stuff as much as you’re training Facebook’s machine learning robots. In other words, this part of the nuking process might be a little bit pointless, but at the very least, you’re probably confusing an algorithm or two.
As you work your way down the Ad Preferences page, you’ll have the opportunity to turn off other stuff that connects your personal information to advertisers. This is a small bit of control you have over how Facebook shares your data with advertisers, and so you should just turn it all off. While you’re at it, go to the next section, “Ad settings,” and disallow Facebook from serving you ads based on your activity and your activity on partner sites. Facebook will still find ways to serve you personalised ads, I’m sure. But at least turning this stuff off feels good.
As encouraging as it feels to revoke Facebook’s access to stuff you’re doing online, Facebook is notoriously good at figuring out what you do online, even if you’re not doing it on Facebook and even if you’re not logged in to Facebook. This is why you might to consider using Privacy Badger, a Chrome extension built by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that limits how much invisible tracking Facebook can do.
Also, don’t forget to revoke app access. Over the years, you’ve probably given a lot of apps access to your Facebook profile. You can revoke that by clicking “Apps and Websites” on the left-hand side of the settings page. Revoke everything. You don’t need it.
And what about just quitting?
If you’ve gone through the steps of deleting your personal information and clamping down on ad tracking, you might consider quitting Facebook altogether. Well, for starters, you might consider deleting all of the other information on your Facebook profile—stuff like photos, friendships, Timeline posts, and so forth. This tutorial can get you started if you’re at that point.
But even if you want to delete Facebook completely, you’re looking at another multi-step process. First, you have to deactivate your account, at which point Facebook will show you a bunch of photos of your friends and tell you how much they’ll miss you. Then, the easiest way to actually delete the damn thing is to click this link.
It’s not a clean break. In Facebook’s words, you’re actually just letting the social network know you want to delete your account. Then it will take 30 days for everything to disappear, leaving you only to wonder if anyone can ever truly disappear from the confines of a walled garden growing thick with weeds.
I’m not quitting yet. To use a tired sports analogy, I’ve moved off the pitch, I’ve collected my things from the locker room, and I’m currently walking to my car. Who knows where I’ll go once I throw my bag full of digital memories into the boot. The bag has been picked over and stolen from, but at least I’m paying more attention now.