A while 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 naturally I tried to delete most of my personal information from Facebook, and discovered it was strangely hard to do.
Today, in the immediate aftermath of the news that hackers had access to the personal information of about 30 million Facebook users, I got an “Update on Security Incident” notification on the top of my Facebook Timeline. So yeah, it turned out I was one of the unlucky millions. This demanded more rage-deleting.
Why does it matter? It’s not easy to figure out what Facebook tracks about you. The company’s mammoth Data Policy clocks in at over 4,200 words, and there are many things Facebook’s privacy policies don’t tell you. We will probably never know how much Facebook knows about us. I’m not even sure Facebook knows how much it knows about us. So when hackers break into Facebook, who knows what they know?
I considered totally deleting my Facebook account, but I’m not ready to go for the full nuclear option yet for various reasons, like the fact that my mom will get upset. But I stopped trusting Facebook a long time ago, and the site bothers me far more often than it helps me. So I decided to delete as much personal information as possible without actually deleting my entire account. 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.
So here’s what I learned, and how you can get most of your personal information off Facebook.
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 intentionally makes it difficult.
So go to Facebook, 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. 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.” Just go ahead and delete all that.
To do this, start with each section underneath “Overview” and start erasing your life story as Facebook sees it. 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 to Mark Zuckerberg?
Start by clicking 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, because 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 essential personal information—facts like your phone number and birthday—is that Facebook really wants this demographic data. You simply can’t delete most of it. You can delete your phone number, but then you’ll won’t be able to access two-factor authentication, which you absolutely should be using. 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.
You can change your birthday to a fake birthday, but Facebook won’t 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 lefthand 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 roommate 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.
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 tracking.
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 lefthand 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 are retraining Facebook’s machine learning artificial intelligence. In other words, this part of the nuking process might be a little pointless, but at the very least, you’re 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 forbid Facebook from serving ads based on your activity and your activity on partner sites. Facebook will still find ways to serve you personalized ads, I’m sure. But 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, 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 Facebook’s invisible tracking.
Also, don’t forget to revoke app access. Over the years, you’ve probably given a lot of different web sites and apps access to your Facebook profile. You can revoke that by clicking “Apps and Websites” on the lefthand side of the settings page. Revoke everything. You don’t need it.
If you’ve gone through all the steps to delete your personal information and minimize ad tracking, you might consider quitting Facebook altogether. A small step in that direction would be to delete all of the other information on your Facebook profile—stuff like photos, friendships, Timeline posts, and so on. This tutorial can get you started if you’re ready to do that.
If you want to delete Facebook completely, you’re looking at another drawn-out 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. You’re actually just letting the social network know you want to delete your account: It will still take 30 days for everything to disappear. You’ll be left wondering if anything can truly disappear from a walled garden growing thick with weeds.
As for me, I’m not quitting yet. To use sports analogies: I’ve gotten tired of sitting on the bench, I’ve moved off the playing field, I’ve collected my things from the locker room, and I’m walking to my car. Who knows where I’ll go once I throw my duffel bag full of digital memories into the trunk. The bag has been picked over and stolen from, but at least I’m paying more attention now.