Taking Control of your Data

An image of Uncle Sam with the text, "I want your data"

This image is licensed under CC 2.0 by Flickr user DonkeyHotey

In light of my recent exploration of data collection, surveillance, and analysis with UBC’s Learning Management System, Blackboard Connect, I’ve felt empowered to take further control of the data that exists about me online. Below, I’ve identified two of the larger data mining companies, Google and Facebook, and what you can do retrieve, edit, and delete the data that they’ve collected about you. If you’re not concerned with Google or Facebook having your data, consider that they’re both liable to sell or transfer your data to third-parties, like advertisers, banks, and security agencies.

What can I do?

Begin auditing the data that exists about you online. We create an average of 70 data points on the internet everyday, all logged with unique identifying information and timestamps. That’s 70,000 data points in a year, and over a half million in a lifetime. This is a very conservative estimate. When I got my data back from UBC about Connect, I was creating upwards of 45 data points in a minute. Let’s explore some options.


Have a look at your application settings on Facebook. This shows you what applications you’ve allowed Facebook to share your data with, and what kinds of data you’re sharing, along with access permissions. Through this panel, you’ll be able to restrict these applications from accessing your data and account.

While you’re at it, why not have a look at what Facebook thinks you like? The advertising preferences panel shows you how descriptive and predictive analysis have identified your areas of interest. These aren’t unique to Facebook; this data is being sold to advertisers across the internet. You can go ahead and customize these fields, or delete all of them. You’ll also be able to see which advertisers have you within their custom audience. If you want, delete those, too.A continuous image of the Facebook logo

Want to see all your activity on Facebook all the way to the beginning of time? I couldn’t figure out a link for this one, but if you click on the little downward triangle in the top right corner of any Facebook page and select Activity Log then, yikes, every like, comment, and post will appear in chronological order. In this panel, you’re able to delete any unfriendly reminders of times gone.

Facebook also purchases data from third-parties to enhance its knowledge about you and provide richer detail to its advertisers. You can view a list of the current data providers that Facebook is working with, but be prepared to be checking this list fairly regularly as Facebook often switches providers. On that page, you can also attempt to opt out from the data providers and have your information removed. However, according to one article, this is almost impossible. Opting out requires you sending them sensitive information like your social security number and/or a scan of your driver’s license.

Now the big one. You can download all of your Facebook data at once. Click on that little downward triangle again and select Settings. At the bottom you’ll see an option to download a copy of your Facebook data. It won’t happen instantly. I’ve been waiting a couple of days.

GoogleGoogle search engine in an internet browser window

You can adjust a lot of your Google settings within the Personal Info & Privacy page. Here you can access your Activity Controls, which allow you to customize what kind of data Google records, you can review all of your activity with Google, including your searches, and you can adjust your Advertisement Settings and control the information that Google uses for ads.

But if you really want to see all of the data that Google has about you, you’ll have to download a copy of your data. This is all of the information that Google has collected about you. You won’t be able to make any changes to it in this document, but by referring to the links mentioned before, you’ll be able to customize your data.

Why does it matter?

When it comes to data mining, there are two major forms of examination that can take place: descriptive and predictive analysis. Descriptive analysis involves the superficial content of your data; your explicit likes, interests, activities. There isn’t too much harm in this data, especially when it remains in the location where you’ve shared it. Predictive analysis takes this content and makes inferences upon it, predicting future patterns of behaviour based on your previous activities.

Likewise, there isn’t too much harm in this, as long it remains within the location where you’ve shared it. If the ads on your Facebook are more relatable to your interests, both actually and predictively, it’s not a big deal. However, when this data is transferred from the original site where you’ve shared it, which we can refer to as a public location, and is then used to make inferences about your behaviour at a new location, which we can refer to as a private location, you could make the argument that a privacy violation has occurred.

It’s the contextual differences between public and private locations, and the transgression of these metaphorical boundaries, that animates the violation. For example, if the dataset that is created through your interactions on Facebook were sold to an advertiser, who then sold it to a bank, who then rejected you for a car loan, you’d be pretty upset. The information that you divulged in one context, Facebook, has been transferred into a different context at the bank and transformed to make predictions about your risk. There are other examples, which have to do with national surveillance agencies, but they’re too dark and broad to cover here. But you have some options to take control of your data.

What do you think?

I know it’s a little early for spring cleaning, but taking inventory of the data that exists about you online is a great way to take control of your digital identity. Were you surprised by any of the things that you found?



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