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Here's how to view, download, and delete your personal information online

Popular Science logo Popular Science 6/6/2019 Stan Horaczek
a person using a laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Imagine on that screen there's a never ending parade of internet privacy center sites. © Pixabay Imagine on that screen there's a never ending parade of internet privacy center sites.

Social media networks know a lot about you. In fact, that's their primary job. They want to collect information about you and use that to sell advertisements that you can't resist. In return for your data, these companies give you a chance to interact with other users and share your life no matter how interesting or banal. Recently, instructions have been floating around the web about how to see the secret interests Instagram thinks you want to see ads about. The results are sometimes hilariously wrong, but they can also be worryingly accurate. Your information is a product that companies leverage.

In a perfect world, this exchange would result in a harmonious civilization in which people find others with similar interests and we enjoy our hobbies in harmony. In real life, however, our information crawls around the dark corners of the web where it's compromised, sold, leveraged, and otherwise abused. And that's not even mentioning what happens when one of these social media sites flickers out of existence and takes all of your stuff with it.

This article provides a quick primer on how to see what data sites have collected about you, as well as how to download and delete it. It's handy information to have before the next site shuts down or accidentally tells a bunch of bad guys your favorite movie and your cellphone number.

Instagram

If you want to see the topics Instagram thinks you'll like when it comes to ads, go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Access Data > Ads. It will give you a running list of things about which it thinks you want to see advertising. The results are often kind of weird, and in some cases just plain wrong. But others are strikingly accurate. If you want to download all of your Instagram data including your photos and captions, you can now do that as well. Go to the same Privacy & Security tab and look for the Data Download section. You can then request a download link of all your stuff.

Myspace

"Why the heck is MySpace near the top?" you wonder as you scroll through this article. Well, mostly because MySpace screwed up relatively recently. Earlier this year, it lost more than a decade of music files users had uploaded starting in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, MySpace doesn't exactly make it easy to get your stuff from that account you probably haven't touched in years.

According to this link on the MySpace help site, there's no way to download all of your photos at one time, so you'll have to go through and save them one-by-one.

You can download your songs and videos by going to the uploads page, finding the media you want to pull down, and clicking the pencil icon to get to the download menu. Maybe while you're over there, delete your whole account. I wish I had done that ages ago because I don't have any of my login information or my old email and now I can visit myself on MySpace but not log in.

Facebook

When it comes to compiling data about users, there are few who do it more comprehensively than Facebook. In fact, there’s so much data about each user that the company splits up the downloads into sections and logs to make viewing it more manageable.

If you follow this link, you’ll find links to activity logs that collect various types of Facebook activities into a single stream. So, if you want to see every status update you’ve ever made, you can do that here.

If you want to download an archive of everything you’ve ever done on Facebook, you can do that here. The file will be big—like, multiple gigabytes big.

Once you dig into the Facebook settings on this page, you can scroll down to the bottom and see things that may surprise you. For instance, Facebook thinks I’m in the “established adult life” stage of my life, whatever that means.

If you click this link it will show you a map of places you have been. Weird.

Apple

Earlier this year, Apple gave U.S. users the ability to download their personal data, which makes sense in light of its CEO’s big privacy speech. Apple is primarily a hardware company, so it doesn’t rely as heavily on collecting user data to make money. As a result, you might find that your Apple data is welcomely boring.

If you want to check it out, go to the Data and Privacy page and log in. While you’re there, you can also double check some of your privacy settings and make sure you’re comfortable with everything going on.

Google

Not to be outdone by Apple, Google also recently revamped the way in which users can interact with and download their personal data.

If you go to the My Activity page, you will see a running tally of everything you have done using Google products. The sheer volume of entries on that page might be impressive. It likely includes every search you’ve requested, every time you’ve used Google Maps, all of the YouTube videos you’ve watched, and smart home functions you’ve done via app or a Google Assistant speaker.

You can even listen to your Google Assistant voice requests.

If you want to delete this activity, you can do so by going to this page and selecting the dates you want to delete or choose by service. So, if you want to nuke your YouTube history after some questionable binge watching, you can do so.

Before you consider your Google account nice and tidy, you might consider doing one of the Privacy Checkups, which will run you through your settings and show you what the services are collecting. You'll also soon have access to a feature that actively deletes your old data automatically.

Amazon

It’s easy enough to see most of the information about your Amazon account through the regular menus on the site or through the app, but you may not know that Amazon keeps audio from your Alexa requests and links them to your account. You can find them by going to the devices page and clicking the box under where it says “Actions.” Recently, Amazon announced the Alexa Privacy Hub, which provides easier access to see your security data.

Snapchat

If you’re still using Snapchat (or you stopped, but want to know what information the company has about you), you can visit this page and submit a request. It will take a while for the company to “prepare” your data into a zip file (usually a couple hours) and then you get a link from which you can download it.

Some personal data like your device history is located at this page if you want to see it without the download.

Twitter

To grab your Twitter archive, head into the account settings page and navigate to the “Download your data” section. Like with Snapchat, Twitter will gather up your info into a zip file and send you a link for downloading. You’ll need to have a confirmed email address if you want to go through with the process.

Microsoft

Even if you mostly use Macs, Microsoft may still have some information about you if you use any of its services like Xbox, Skype, or that old Hotmail account you forgot about.

You can head to Microsoft’s privacy hub, where you can sign in and download a compilation of all your personal data. If you use a Windows computer, expect to find a bunch of information in there.

The hub also directs you to the various privacy settings pages across the Microsoft stable of apps.

Data brokers

While tracking down your info on specific tech and social media sites is relatively straightforward at this point, finding the shadowy information that’s tracked, scraped, and extrapolated by data collection companies is much harder to pin down.

Acxiom, for example, is a large “marketing data” company that takes information about people on the web and forms profiles that marketers can use for targeted advertising. If you want to see the data it collects about you, you can create an account at its AboutTheData website. Yes, you have to give them your personal information if you want to see what personal information they have about you.

You can also opt out of Acxiom’s data collection practices, which will stop them from tracking you further, but won’t erase the information that’s already there.

Acxiom is just one company of many, though. Motherboard has a massive list of data brokers and links to help you opt out of their tracking. It’s a great resource, but it will likely take you a few hours to hit all the links.

Some larger agencies will even make you send them a copy of your photo ID to prove your identity due to the sensitive nature of the data.

The big takeaway from all of this data is to keep an eye on your privacy settings when you use apps and sites. It’s still a maze of permissions and privacy agreements, but it’s actually easier now than it ever has been thanks to reforms like GDPR. Be vigilant.

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