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I downloaded 14 years of my Facebook data and here's what happened

It had the phone number of my late grandmother who never had a Facebook account, or even an email address. It preserved the conversations I had with an ex-- someone with whom I thought I had deleted my digital ties. It even recalled times I was "poked," a feature I had forgotten about. I also learned that Kate Spade New York and MetLife have me on their advertiser lists.

Staring at the data was not only creepy but it drudged up painful memories.

After the news broke last week that data firm Cambridge Analytica accessed information from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge, I wanted to know more about what information Facebook has on me.
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By visiting the Settings page, I clicked an option to download a copy of my data at the bottom of the general account section.

Facebook emailed me a link to download my data. The process took about 10 minutes. (The downloading time depends on how much data you've generated.) The data is segmented into groups: like ads, contact info, events, messages, timeline, and more.

I started with the ads tab and learned which advertisers possessed my contact information. They included Bed, Bath and Beyond, Target, and Marriott Rewards ... and a few crowdfunding sites I had never heard of. One of my male colleagues had a few surprising advertisers collecting his data: Rod Stewart, Sally Beauty and Cyndi Lauper. (He said he's not a fan of any of those brands.)

I can view the dates I became friends with among my contacts on Facebook.

Related: Facebook has gotten too big for Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook also preserved conversations I had with people I've tried to forget. But apparently I didn't try hard enough. That includes the guy I dated on and off for several years.

I hadn't actively deleted our Messenger conversations. (Messenger is the chat app also owned by Facebook). I needed to delete the history of our conversations in order to erase it from Facebook's digital memory ... and mine if I ever want to look back at my data and not see those conversations.

Simply "Unfriending" wasn't enough.

The "contact info" section read like a Rolodex of all the contacts I've had ever stored in my phone -- including individuals that I no longer have in my most recent iPhone.

It wasn't immediately clear how I could purge this data from Facebook's memory but by going here, I was able to select contacts to remove.
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On Sunday, the company directed CNN to a new blog post addressing data related to calls and texts. Facebook stressed that it never sells this data and that it does not "collect the content of your text messages or calls. ... You are always in control of the information you share with Facebook."

Related: Facebook stock drops after Zuckerberg apology

How to control other data was more straightforward -- like manually revoking the Facebook app's permissions that I once authorized to access my Facebook information.

Same goes for advertisers. To take myself off customer lists for certain -- or all -- advertisers, I simply needed to "uncheck" them via the Preferences page.

The key is understanding all of the information that Facebook is gathering. In all this, I came to the realization that the act of Facebooking should not be a passive sport.


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