Why I Tried to Download 170 Million Facebook Profiles

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Maybe you read this piece of news yesterday: A security researcher collected the names and URL's of 170 million publicly available Facebook profiles and released them as a BitTorrent file. Then, Gizmodo told us that "major corporations are downloading those 100 million Facebook profiles."

This story needs a lot of context. Ron Bowes, the researcher, wrote a script that downloaded all the names and URL's of users listed in Facebook's public profile directory -- users who have either elected to make their information searchable or have neglected to hide it. So, basically, the file is a list of names. What Bowes did violates Facebook's terms of use, but it wasn't exactly hacking into private information. He made it slightly easier for others to locate -- and possibly mine the data of -- users who have some information available.

And what about all these corporations downloading the torrent file? Torrent files crowdsource the process of sharing data. When you download something using a torrent file, you get that data from other users and can retrieve their IP addresses. Match those up against a list of known companies' addresses and you've generated a spreadsheet of company networks. Gizmodo found 65 that have been known to belong to corporations or major organizations including the United Nations and U.S. Postal Service. But, as they note, that doesn't mean the organizations themselves were downloading the files. It just means that at least one person using a computer at Boeing, Apple, Raytheon or Levi Strauss & Co. was trying to download the file. Why? They were probably curious.

Atlantic Media could very nearly have made the list. Both a colleague and I tried to download the files yesterday, but were thwarted by the company's torrent-downloading ban. (Yes, I know there are ways around it, but it wasn't worth the investment of time.) Why did I do it? I like to check my facts.

There are significant privacy concerns with all social media tools and the data they ingest. But this data release and its downloaders are a genuine molehill.

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Niraj Chokshi is a former staff editor at TheAtlantic.com, where he wrote about technology. He is currently freelancing and can be reached through his personal website, NirajC.com. More

Niraj previously reported on the business of the nation's largest law firms for The Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper. He has also been published in The Hartford Courant, The Seattle Times and The Age, in Melbourne, Australia. He's also a longtime programmer and sometimes website designer.
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