Polish town highlights oddities in Facebook's personal data disclosures

Facebook holds back some personal data when responding to a user access request, but reveals curious ad-targeting data

By Loek Essers, IDG News Service |  On-demand Software

Facebook's store of data about its users holds some surprises, and not just in the sheer quantity of data it is sitting on. Among the surprises it held for me was SBupsk.

One of 47 topics about which Facebook thinks I am interested in seeing advertisements, SBupsk is a Polish town with about 100,000 citizens and a beautiful church. Another of those topics is Bomen, a town in New South Wales, Australia. I don't remember ever seeing an ad, or indeed anything, related to the towns while hanging around on Facebook -- or anywhere else for that matter.

In fact, the first I heard of either place was when I requested dumps of all the data Facebook holds about me, to evaluate how the company is responding to criticism of its data storage practices by the Data Protection Commissioner of Ireland. That's where Facebook's international headquarters is, making the company subject to Irish (and European Union) data protection laws -- and also to Ireland's advantageous rate of corporation tax.

Under European Union law, Facebook is required to provide users with personal data it holds about them on request, and in a December review of Facebook's data handling, the data protection commissioner recommended that the company provide users with access to more of their personal data. It gave the company until July to change its policies, and is currently reviewing the changes made. It expects to publish a new audit in early October, said senior investigations officer Catriona Holohan.

Facebook is required to respond to data access requests within 40 days. After sending out wads of paper and CDs in response to early requests, the company now offers a self-service tool allowing users to download two bundles of their personal data. The basic bundle contains timeline information including shared posts, messages and photos, and in my case was ready in about 3.5 hours. An extended archive with details of logins, cookies, deleted friends and the curious "ads topics" was ready in 90 minutes. Other data can be consulted online in a searchable Activity Log on Facebook's website.

Facebook now seems to be providing all the categories of data the commissioner asked for. In April it added login and logout information, unconfirmed friendship requests and information about pokes, among other categories requested by the authority.

As a user, it's not easy to check Facebook's compliance with all the commissioner's recommendations, however.

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