Slate's new tech advice column "Dear Farhad."

Slate's new tech advice column "Dear Farhad."

Slate's new tech advice column "Dear Farhad."

Your tech questions answered.
Oct. 1 2009 10:16 AM

Is Facebook Spying on My E-Mail?

Slate's new tech advice column answers your questions about social networking, syncing your mail, and more.

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A few months ago I asked people to submit their vexing, perplexing, and just plain weird tech questions. I got a bunch of great ones, and I've picked the most interesting and (I'm hoping) the most universal for my inaugural tech advice column. I'm planning to do one question-and-answer column a month. So if you've got a tech dilemma, please send a note to farhad.manjoo@slate.com with "I've got a tech question!" as the subject line. (Your question may be edited.)

Dear Farhad,
Lately Facebook's friend suggestions have been creeping me out. I help coach a girl's basketball team, and Facebook has twice recommended that I friend parents of players. But how did Facebook know that I knew them? Their names could only have come from our team mailing list. I've previously used Facebook's friend-finder service—which accesses your e-mail to look for possible social-networking connections—but that was long before my association with the basketball team. Facebook promised it wouldn't store my e-mail password. Was it lying? Did Facebook access my Yahoo account to learn about the team?

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—Can't Stand Facebook Spying

Dear Can't Stand,
I get this question quite frequently, and I've wondered about it myself, too. Facebook's friend suggestions often make sense—many of the site's recommendations depend on obvious social connections. If Tom is friends with Harry and Louise, and Dick is friends with Harry and Louise as well, then Facebook assumes that Tom and Dick probably know each other, too. Every so often, though, Facebook will recommend someone who isn't a friend of a friend: your plumber, your pool boy, your travel agent. And because people often give Facebook access to their e-mail contacts when they first join the site, these suggestions raise a lot of hackles: Facebook must be peeking in my e-mail!

Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, says that's not the case. Facebook doesn't store your password; it has no way of going into your e-mail to check for new relationships. So how does the site learn about the connection between you and your plumber? Because your plumber let Facebook look in his e-mail, and Facebook found your name there. "If someone imports their contacts and your name is found, you might get a recommendation to be their friend," Schnitt says. In your case, Can't Stand, the basketball parents likely allowed Facebook to look at their contacts; Facebook found your name there and made a recommendation.

Schnitt also points out that Facebook's friend suggestions are secret—if you choose to ignore the recommendation that you friend your plumber, your plumber will never find out.

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—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
Facebook recently blocked me from adding friends—it said I'd been adding too many friends too quickly. After I was blocked, Facebook's message didn't tell me how long I have to wait before I can start adding friends again. It's been four days. All this seems draconian.

—Just Too Friendly

Dear Too Friendly,
I ran your problem by Facebook's Schnitt, and he says that you likely tripped up Facebook's anti-spam systems. The social network keeps on the lookout for botlike behavior—friending too promiscuously, sending out lots of messages too quickly, updating your status like crazy. It's possible for Facebook's security algorithms to mistakenly finger real people for bots, but you'd have to be doing something very unusual—and, therefore, pretty annoying—for that to happen. Schnitt says that in many cases, full access is restored after a few days. And remember—after you're back up and running, slow down.

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—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
A few months ago my wife's HP laptop crashed for the third and seemingly last time. We wouldn't miss it, except there are several dozen photos of our son on that hard drive. I can't recycle the laptop until we figure out how to extract the irreplaceable photos.

The laptop seems to boot up when I press the power button and I can hear the disc spinning, but nothing happens on the screen. I have tried connecting the laptop to our LCD monitor with a cable, but it doesn't recognize the new source. I know next to nothing about removing hardware from a laptop. I have called a couple of computer shops, and they want $50 minimum just to take a look and determine whether they can do anything about it. How do we easily access data from a hard drive that is stuck in a laptop that won't display anything?

—Not Without My Photos

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Dear Not Without,
Whether you can get those photos depends on how the machine met its end. If it was the hard drive that crashed, you might have trouble finding your data. If there's some other problem that's preventing the machine from booting up, your photos are likely completely intact.

Unfortunately, there's no great way to know without pulling out the hard drive and accessing it. But let me assure you—that's much easier than it sounds. Here's what to do:

1) Buy an external hard drive enclosure. This is a little device that turns your laptop's internal drive into a USB drive that you can plug into another machine. This shouldn't cost you more than $15. As long as you're shopping, also buy a set of small screwdrivers.

2) Get the hard drive out of your crashed laptop. This sounds daunting, but it's not. The drives on most laptops—especially PC laptops—are easy to access. Just Google your machine's model number and "remove hard drive," and you'll probably find a diagram like this showing you where to look. In many cases, all you have to do is unscrew two screws and open a panel, and you'll find the hard drive underneath.

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3) Pull the drive out of the laptop. Pop it into the enclosure. Plug the enclosure into your new machine, and pray. If the data's there, you'll be able to access it—and copy it—to your new computer. If it's not, search for ways to repair a crashed hard drive, and take some new pictures of your kid.

—Farhad

Dear Farhad,
What is the most efficient way to mimic the most important functions of Apple's MobileMe—syncing e-mail, calendars, contacts, and data backups—across the desktop, Web, and iPhone, for free?

I use Gmail, so my e-mail stays in sync, and I've got a service called Nuevasync that keeps my calendar straight. But contacts are a pain; I just can't keep them all synced across the board. Mozy provides online backup, but the free version is only 2GB, and it's not user-friendly to restore. Are there ways of consolidating or streamlining all this syncing and backing up?

—Trying To Stay in Sync

Dear Trying,
I wish I could offer you a single free service that would do everything that MobileMe does. I can't. There's a reason Apple charges $99 a year for that service—it's drop-dead easy to use. On the other hand, $100 a year is a lot to pay for something that you can rig up on your own.

You're on the right track for e-mail; I've found Gmail to be the best way to keep your e-mail in sync across multiple devices. For the other stuff:

Calendar: I use Google's Calendar app, which easily syncs with iCal on your Mac or Outlook on your PC (through this downloadable app). And you no longer need Nuevasync to wirelessly connect your Google Calendar with your iPhone; instead, just follow the instructions here.

Contacts: You're right, these are a pain. I choose to solve this by not using a desktop contact program; instead, I manage my contacts through Gmail. The Web contact interface is cumbersome, but at least it can automatically sync my contacts with my phone (follow the same instructions).

Backup: When I reviewed online backup systems last year, I found Mozy to be the best. I agree with you, though—restoring files is a bit of a hassle. But how often do you need to restore files from your backup? Not too often, I hope.

Do any readers have better ideas for keeping personal information in sync? E-mail me  and I'll share the best ones in a future column.

—Farhad