Facebook's profile-download tool comes up short

The social network is promising to let users download more of the personal information it stores about them, but Facebook isn't likely to voluntarily disclose everything it knows about you -- that data is the company's bread and butter.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Even casual Facebook users can quickly accumulate a library of photos, videos, and posts reflecting the noteworthy and mundane moments in the lives of family and friends.

Facebook lets you download much of this information and recently enhanced its download archive to include IP addresses used by the account, relationship information, and other categories of personal data.

The download-tool update is being rolled out gradually. (When I downloaded a Facebook profile this weekend the added categories of information weren't included.) To use the profile downloader, sign into your Facebook account and click the down arrow next to the Home button in the top-right corner. Choose Account Settings and click "Download a copy of your Facebook data" at the bottom of the window.

Enter the account password, click Continue, and then choose Start My Archive.

Facebook profile-download tool
Click the Start My Archive button to create a ZIP-file download that contains your Facebook photos, posts, and other profile data. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Facebook then packages your profile information and sends you an e-mail when the profile is ready to download. It took just under 2 hours for my archive to be prepared. Unfortunately, the profile didn't include IP addresses or any of the other new categories of information listed in Facebook's upgrade announcement.

Facebook alert that it is preparing your profile download
It takes a while for Facebook to combine your profile data into a downloadable ZIP file and send you an e-mail with the download link. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The 466KB ZIP file contained the profile's images and videos, as well as 10 HTML files. Open the index.html file to view the stripped-down offline version of your Facebook profile, which includes your wall, photos, friends, and messages.

The user information Facebook is hesitant to share
Facebook is under pressure to comply with the European Union's stringent privacy regulations, as Kevin J. O'Brien reported last week on the New York Times Technology page. Still, serious regulation of Facebook's use of the data the company collects about its users -- on either side of the Atlantic -- is several years away, although EU citizens have one big edge.

European residents can request a copy of all the personal information Facebook stores about them by completing the company's Personal Data Request form. The 880-page report (PDF) that resulted from one such request by the group Europe versus Facebook included applications, friends, activities, and shares.

Facebook, Google, and most other big-name Web services make their money by using what they know about their customers to target the ads the companies serve to them through online ad networks. If the services know what you're interested in, they can deliver ads based on those interests and you're more likely to click the ads. That's the theory, anyway, and it appears to hold water. Lots of water.

Much of the personal data's value is the result of its exclusivity. The more people who have access to the information, the less it's worth to the online advertising networks that Facebook and other services sell it to. If Facebook users had all the information the company collects about them, what would stop customers from selling the information themselves or finding some other profitable use for it?

The European Union's data-protection initiative is an attempt to bring consistency to the enforcement of data-privacy regulation in EU nations. One of its basic tenets is that people using a social network should be told at the time they sign up for the service how their personal information will be used by the company.

The initiative also requires that people be allowed to transfer their personal information from one social network to another, and that they be able to remove all traces of their account when they deactivate it. Of course, users have a right to unlimited access to their personal information. Whose data is it, anyway?

When you hear Facebook argue that the information the company collects about you is the company's property and no longer belongs to you, head for the hills.