“Easily understand” is an interesting choice of phrase. It implies that the personal information Facebook has about each of its users can be presented to those users in a way that they can readily process and comprehend. It implies a data set that is, at a minimum, literally fathomable—from a company that has only ever been motivated to be unfathomably large, and know unfathomably much. But the amount of information Facebook has about each of its users undercuts the goal to present it in a way that could be useful.
Read: Welcome to the age of privacy nihilism
To find out more about what kind of interactions Tinder shared with Facebook, I can’t just turn to the Off-Facebook Activity tool in my browser or in Facebook’s mobile app. It is not immediately obvious, but after messing around for a few minutes, I find I can do so on the general “download your information” page, where all of my personal posts, comments, photos, location data, log-in attempts, and device IDs are also available to download in a massive Zip file, in exchange for just one reentry of my password. That Zip file includes a folder titled “ads_and_businesses,” which has a subfolder titled “your_off_facebook_activity,” which includes links to 1,081 HTML files. They are labeled by numbers only, so I have to click through them at random.
Tinder is, helpfully, first—file “0.html.” The webpage it leads me to shows the 685 times I’ve opened the Tinder app in the past six months (dating is a numbers game!), and each “ACTIVATE_APP” is time-stamped. What would an advertiser do with the knowledge that I opened a dating app at 3:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve? Or 18 times on August 3, 2019—a day that I also RSVP’d on Facebook to a DJ set on a rooftop in Brooklyn? Or 12 times on the morning of my high-school best friend’s baby shower, which I posted about on Instagram?
It took a good chunk of my morning to even uncover the proof that this is information someone definitely has. According to the file labeled “12.html,” Facebook also knows exactly when I did something described as “VIEW_CONTENT” on my credit-card company’s website. Whether someone, somewhere knows what kind of content was viewed is not specified. According to “210.html,” I did something referred to only as “CUSTOM” on Glamour’s website on both September 19, 2019, and November 21, 2019. Facebook does not specify who is doing the customizing—Glamour or Facebook or me. (Later, Facebook told me it could refer to a range of activities, such as signing up for a rewards program or an event. When I asked the company for comment on whether these data were useful and actionable for most users, I was directed to Zuckerberg’s blog post.)
If I cared to click through every single file in my downloaded Zip, I would see similarly vague explanations for what HBO and TikTok and Glossier and the U.S. Postal Service and Amtrak and the Brooklyn Public Library have told Facebook about me. Same goes for ZocDoc, which I recently used to search for a new therapist, and the campaign sites for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, which I recently perused to compare their platforms on reproductive rights. I could not see summaries of how many Facebook employees have access to my “off-Facebook” data, or what they’re allowed to do with those data.