This story has been updated. It was originally published on October 25, 2018.
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. Think about all the secret interests Facebook 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 use.
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 peace. 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.
How to download your Twitter data
To grab your Twitter archive, head to the account settings page (Settings & privacy on the app) and click on Your account. Then, navigate to Download an archive of your data, where you’ll have to enter your password, log in, or otherwise verify you own the account. When you’re in, hit Request archive to ask for a ZIP file stuffed with your account information, history, activity, ads data, and other details. Once Twitter has processed your request, it’ll send you a link for downloading. You’ll need to have a confirmed email address if you want to go through with the process.
How to request all your Facebook data and view ad preferences
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. The company also offers a glossary that explains what’s in each category of collected data.
If you want an archive of everything you’ve ever done on Facebook, you can do that here (Settings > Privacy > Your Facebook information. To download a copy, click View next to Download profile information. From there, you can choose the file format, the quality of photos and videos, a date range, and the categories of data you want to grab. When you’re ready, scroll to the bottom of the page and hit Request a download. The resulting file will be big—like, multiple gigabytes big.
For a little more fun, go back to the Facebook information tab within the site’s privacy settings and select View next to Access profile information. There, choose Logged information and find Ads interests. Poke around on this page and hit See All Interests to see things that may surprise you. For instance, Facebook thinks I’m in the “established adult life” stage of my life, whatever that means. You may also be able to see a map of places you have been. Weird.
How to see Instagram ad preferences and download your data
If you want to see the topics Instagram thinks you’ll like when it comes to ads, tap the three lines in the upper right corner of the app, hit Settings > Ads > Ad topics. This page will give you a running list of things the app thinks you want to see advertised. The results are often kind of weird, and in some cases just plain wrong. But others are strikingly accurate.
Downloading your Instagram data is on a separate page: From the main menu (three lines), tap Your activity followed by Download your information. Enter an email and hit Request Download to get a link to all your stuff.
How to save your TikTok data
TikTok is the newest entry on this list, and downloading all your data from the short-form video app is straightforward. Just tap Profile at the bottom of the screen, hit the three lines in the top right, and select Settings and privacy. From there, choose Manage account at the top of the page and tap Download your data. Read the explanation, select your preferred file format, and slam that Request data button at the bottom.
How to archive your ancient Myspace account
“Why the heck is MySpace near the top?” you wonder as you scroll through this article. Well, mostly because every time some drama surrounding some other social media site hits the news, people inevitably remember their long-abandoned MySpace account. Unfortunately, MySpace doesn’t exactly make it easy to get your stuff from that account you probably haven’t touched in years.
You can download your songs (if Myspace didn’t lose them all in 2019) and/or videos by going to the separate Uploads pages for Music and Videos, 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. Now I can visit myself on MySpace but not log in.
How to download your Apple data
In 2018, Apple gave users in the United States the ability to download their personal data, which made 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. Find where it says Get a copy of your data, and click the Request a copy of your data link underneath it. Choose everything you want bundled into the file and hit Continue to proceed.
How to grab all your Google data
Not to be outdone by Apple, Google has also 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.
[Related: How to secure your Google account]
Although viewing your Google activity is fairly easy, actually downloading it is a little harder. To do so, navigate to the Other activity page and find Download your data from My Activity. There’s a lot on this page, so your best bet will likely be to hit Cmd+F or Ctrl+F and search for “download”. From there, hit Download your data and move through the steps on the screen.
Now, if you want to delete this activity, you can do so by clicking Delete at the top of the page and selecting the dates you want to delete. So, if you want to erase your YouTube history after some questionable binge watching, you can do so. If you haven’t enabled Google’s auto-delete function, go to the Activity controls page and turn it on under the relevant categories.
Before you consider your Google account nice and tidy, you might consider doing its built-in privacy checkup, which will run you through your settings and show you what the company’s services are collecting.
How to save your Snapchat data
If you’re still using Snapchat (or you stopped, but want to know what information the company has about you), you can go into your app settings (tap your avatar, then the gear icon in the top right), scroll to the Account Actions heading, and tap My Data. Then, hit Submit Request and enter a valid email address. It will take a while for the company to put your data into a ZIP file (usually a couple hours) and then you’ll get a link that will start the download.
How to download your Microsoft account data
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.
Once you log into your Microsoft account, You can head to the Privacy tab, where you can download various categories of your personal data. If you use a Windows computer, expect to find a bunch of information in there. Find the Manage your activity data heading and click any category to expand it. If there’s anything available, you should see a Download your data link. Click that, hit Create an archive, and when the archive is ready you can download it to your device.
How to view and delete Alexa voice recordings on 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 Alexa Privacy Settings page in a browser or tapping through Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History in the app. You cannot download them, but Amazon offers several ways to delete these recordings.
How to find out what data brokers know about you
While tracking down your info on specific tech and social media sites is relatively straightforward, 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. You used to be able to see the data it collects about you by creating an account at its AboutTheData website, but that feature is no longer available. Yes, you had to give them your personal information to see what personal information they had about you.
You can, however, opt out of Acxiom’s data collection practices. This will stop the company from tracking you further, but it won’t erase the information that’s already there.
Acxiom is just one company of many, though. Popular Science has its own advice on removing your personal information from the web, and Motherboard has a massive list of data brokers with links to help you opt out of their tracking. Motherboard’s list, though may now be out of date. Both are great resources, but it will likely take you at least a few hours to get the job done.
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 the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Be vigilant.