It’s weirdly hard to steal Mark Zuckerberg’s trash

Private security guards, dead ends, and a whole lot of paranoia: Here’s what happens when you try to rummage through the garbage of the man who owns the world’s secrets.

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg bought a new home in San Francisco’s Mission District, about a mile from where I lived at the time. Shortly after the purchase, the man who once printed business cards boasting, “I’m CEO, Bitch” began refurbishing the $10 million “fixer upper.”

I immediately biked over to the area to scope the place out. I figured that having the address of one of the richest and most powerful people in the world could be vaguely useful. Maybe if a Class War ever started, I could point an angry mob in his general direction. Or maybe I could steal his valuable trash.

After four years of stalling, I finally decided to go ahead with the latter idea. My quarter-baked plan was this: I’d drive to his Mission District pied-à-terre on trash collection day, snatch a few bags of whatever, and dig through it. I could learn more about Mark Zuckerberg’s habits and interests, creating my own ad profile of him. Then I could sell this information to brands looking to target that coveted "male, 18-34, billionaire” demographic. Think of it as a physical version of Facebook’s business model.

Now that the journalism industry has been gutted, largely thanks to Facebook, I could probably make more money selling a weird billionaire’s refuse than by freelance writing. Besides, he seemed to be asking for it. Here was a guy who created one of the biggest mass surveillance operations in human history: A digital Oppenheimer, too naive or narcissistic to own the horrific consequences of his invention, who instead apparently sees the spread of global fascism and the unraveling of democracy as a mere engineering and PR problem.

First, I needed to determine if it was legal to dig through somebody's trash. Thanks to Google, I discovered that there are a wealth of court cases that protect the rights of trash-rummagers everywhere. “Every circuit considering the issue has concluded that no reasonable expectation of privacy exists once trash has been placed in a public area for collection,” wrote a U.S. Third Court of Appeals judge in the case of United States v. Reicherter back in 1981, before quoting a ruling stating, “[T]he placing of trash in garbage cans at a time and place for anticipated collection by public employees for hauling to a public dump signifies abandonment.” The Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue as well, deciding in the case California v. Greenwood that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect against people searching through your trash. Here’s Justice Byron White with the majority opinion:

It is common knowledge that plastic garbage bags left on or at the side of a public street are readily accessible to animals, children, scavengers, snoops, and other members of the public. Moreover, respondents placed their refuse at the curb for the express purpose of conveying it to a third party, the trash collector, who might himself have sorted through respondents' trash or permitted others, such as the police, to do so.

Secure in the knowledge that the Supreme Court had my back, I looked up the trash collection schedule for Zuckerberg’s block online. It happened to be on Wednesday, the very day I was looking it up (destiny!). I posted an Instagram story that I was going to steal Zuckerberg’s trash, got in my car, and zoomed over. On the drive across the bridge from Oakland (which Facebook board member Peter Thiel once described as a “failed state”), I wondered what I might find. Tubs of Vaseline? Discarded grey T-shirts, disintegrated by his acidic sweat? The scattered bones of small animals?

I parked a couple streets away and walked up the hill to his mansion to find two trash bins in front of his house (!!), and a guy in a grey pullover leaning against the brick wall next to them. He seemed to be guarding the place. Did my Instagram story tip him off?

Unnerved, I continued walking up the block, and stopped in front of his neighbor’s house. I took the scene in from a distance. The guard tapped on his phone for a bit, then walked over to a Dodge SUV that was parked nearby and chatted with its driver. The dash of the SUV was crowded with a nondescript metal box and other electronic equipment. I watched them look up and notice me.

Another guy walked across the street and joined them. He was bald, in wrap-around sunglasses. I began to get paranoid. Maybe I shouldn’t pull a childish prank on one of the richest and most powerful people in the world, who runs a vast database of the personal information of nearly all humans. I imagined whatever equipment was in that SUV had already taken my photo, matched it to my Facebook account, and denied my future children admission to all colleges.

If only Mark Zuckerberg cared about the privacy of the rest of the world as much as he did his own.

A fourth guy showed up and started walking towards me, carrying a camo bag. Shit. He was built like a goon from a Steven Seagal movie. He stopped at the Mercedes I was standing next to, popped open the trunk, and tossed the bag in there. At this point I figured I needed an excuse for being there, so I told him I’d dropped my keys the other day, and was looking for him. Had he seen them? No. He seemed annoyed.

The men gathered next to the trash bins, and talked amongst themselves for a couple minutes, seemingly ignoring my presence. Then all but the guy in the sunglasses left. Now was my chance.

I walked down the block towards Zuck’s house, fake-looking for “lost” keys, moving closer to the trash bins. Maybe I could rush up, grab the bags out, and run. Or, pull a classic Seagal move and toss one of the bags at the goon saying some overwrought line like “You can’t mix paper and assholes” before escaping down the hill.

But as I walked by, the guy in wrap-around sunglasses nodded at me and asked if I’d found my keys. I saw an opening. I told him no, and asked if I could look in the bins to play it safe.

He seemed to intuit that I was full of shit, and told me that he didn’t care — the bins weren’t Zuck’s, he claimed — they were from the house next door.

I looked inside the bins. Turns out it didn’t matter who owned them. They were empty.

Of course, Mark Zuckerberg might not even put his trash on the street. He is not a normal person. He is very rich. I reached out to a representative at Facebook to confirm how Mark Zuckerberg disposes of his garbage, but as of press time, they did not respond.

There are a number of private waste disposal and shredding companies in the Bay Area that he could potentially use. Their methods vary. Some offer mobile shredding trucks, like the Shred-Tech MDS 2, that can process approximately 5,500 pounds of waste per hour. Another company called Covanta offers a service called “Secure Destruction.” According to their website, a customer ships their waste to them in a “sealed vehicle.” The waste is then transported to their Energy-from-Waste (EfW) processing plant, to be combusted. There’s a fun infographic of the process that’s been archived here.

So what happens to Mark Zuckerberg’s trash? Does he shred it? Burn it? Eat it? We may never know.

The week after I tried and failed to steal Zuck’s trash, the Facebook privacy scandal broke. Nothing about the situation was particularly new. The company had been vacuuming up user data and pawning it off to advertisers for nearly a decade. It’s how they make their money.

And yet something about the extent of the Facebook’s invasiveness finally perturbed the public into sustained outrage, and the company soon found itself in a PR disaster. Zuck went AWOL for a few days as his company’s stock plummeted. His only public appearances came in the form of a few Facebook likes of his friends’ photos and sharing a post by accused sexual harasser Robert Scoble before deleting it sometime later.

As the scandal grew into a “#DeleteFacebook movement,” the failure to get any of Zuckerberg’s sweet, sweet garbage nagged at me. He had an ocean of personal data about me and everyone I knew, but we had nothing on him. I needed to even the score. I decided to try again, this time at his main residence in Palo Alto. It wasn’t hard to find. Weirdly, though, its entrance is blurred out on Google Street View.

I looked up the trash schedules for his area using a map helpfully on the website of Green Waste of Palo Alto, and drove down to the Worst City on Earth. His house, which he purchased in 2011 for $7 million, is about a ten minute drive from the Facebook campus. It’s a quiet neighborhood, seemingly populated only by older women who walk inbred, wall-eyed dogs around in circles all day.

After Zuck purchased his Palo Alto home, according to MarketWatch, he bought the lots around it, so that neighbors wouldn’t be able to see into his yard and bedroom. He then began razing the homes on those lots. When I arrived, his abode was surrounded by a big construction site and a chain link fence. I spotted two more security SUVs watching his front gate.

I parked down the block and walked by, trying to get a look inside, but his residence is surrounded by large defensive shrubs. There were no trash bins in front of his house, but behind the construction fence were two large dumpsters — bingo! Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to get to them without possibly getting tased to death by his heavies. This isn’t as paranoid a thought as you might think: Last year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Zuckerberg’s security detail included “ex-Oakland cops with disciplinary records — including for excessive force.”

Down the block, I spotted a pickup truck for a construction contractor. I later called the number on the truck, and asked them where the dumpsters go when they’re through with them at the lot. They had no idea (or so they claimed).

Before heading home, I drove around to get a shot of the back of his house. Beyond the construction site, blocking my view, was a massive wall that double-blocked my view.

It’s interesting to ponder the ways in which privacy can be a privilege only for the wealthy. Not everyone can afford an army of hired goons and corporate secret police, an absurd wall in their backyard, and a buffer zone of razed lots around their house. Might similar class privileges someday extend into our digital lives? In the future, who will have the luxury of owning their data?

Mostly, though, it’s hard to ignore the irony of all of this. If only Mark Zuckerberg cared about the privacy of the rest of the world as much as he did his own.

Joe Veix is a writer living in Oakland.