Staff Columnist

Worried about privacy? Watch Washington, not Moscow

Our elections are secure; due process is what's in jeopardy

The Facebook application is seen in the App Store on March 21. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer
The Facebook application is seen in the App Store on March 21. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer

Facebook is not as smart as you think it is.

Many Americans are disturbed at emerging details of the social media giant collecting and storing our personal data. Some say that data has been used in a highly sophisticated global conspiracy to maliciously influence American politics.

So I wondered what Facebook thinks it knows about me. It took about three clicks from the Facebook homepage to request a copy of data stored about my two-year-old account, and a half-hour before I got a notification it was ready for download.

Facebook’s tally of my interests was mostly made up of things I never think about whatsoever, like SportsCenter, Mary Kay and the state of Kansas. It also includes plenty of things I sincerely dislike, like communism, Chevrolet and the Rachel Maddow Show.

If advertisers are spending to reach me based on this information, at least half are wasting their money. That experiment, along with my previous work in public relations, made clear to me Facebook is not great at figuring individuals’ interests.

It is only a so-so tool for advertisers, political or otherwise, not the stuff to swing a major election. Data analysts studying the issue say it’s about as effective as traditional forms of targeting.

Facebook is good, however, at tracking your logins.

My data trove included a “security” file with thousands of entries documenting when and how I logged into Facebook, including the IP addresses and basic information about the computer or mobile device I used.

That information isn’t particularly useful to Cambridge Analytica, the Russians or anyone else trying to sway politics with misinformation. However, it could be extremely valuable to your own government if you fall out of its favor.

Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have used Facebook login data to track suspects, according to government documents obtained by anti-surveillance media outlet the Intercept, and published last month. Investigators can locate targets by combining information gleaned from Facebook records with entries from other data keepers, like mobile carriers.

While Facebook and other tech companies insist the government does not have special access to private data, we know the government is getting it somehow. Since the process is not transparent, it is ripe for the abuse of due process.

Even if you are pro-ICE or pro-law enforcement, it should be easy to see how the government’s easy access to our personal information could be used against any of us.

Today it’s immigration enforcement, but tomorrow it may be home-school families, gun owners or politically incorrect social commentators.

Those groups may feel well-protected now, but governments are fickle. Consider Europe, where multinational government regulators are cracking down on controversial speech, including jailing some offenders.

Facebook and Russian hackers may be easy scapegoats for political frustration, but that anger is misguided. The greatest danger of mass data storage is our own government.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

How to download a copy of your Facebook data:

• Click at the top right of any Facebook page and select “Settings.”

• Click “Download a copy of your Facebook data below” your General Account Settings.

• Click “Start My Archive.”

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