It is no secret that Facebook is considered by many to be a privacy nightmare. The new UN privacy chief, Joseph Cannataci, recently commented that he does not have a Facebook account because of the web site’s invasive nature. Further saying that he finds it worrying just how many people are willing to hand over their digital rights without a second thought.
In 2010, privacy rights activists at Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to address what they considered to be ‘outstanding privacy problems’. In the letter, EFF asked Facebook to discontinue doing a number of things. Including a request to ‘not retain data about specific visitors to third party sites that incorporate “social plugins” or the “like” button unless the site visitor chooses to interact with those tools.’
Sadly, Facebook made the decision to ignore EFF and continue collecting that data. Revealing in 2014 that it planned to one day incorporate the third party website information into its targeted advertising algorithms – according to Zuckerberg – to give users a more personal and useful advertising experience.
This week Facebook announced that from next month it intends to make good on that promise. So how will it work? Every time you visit one of the millions of sites that have a Facebook ‘like’ or ‘share’ button, whether you click those buttons or not, information about your visit is channeled back to the social media giant. Those pesky buttons contain code that forces your internet browser to contact Facebook – at the same time using cookies to identify you personally.
When the new scheme kicks off, Facebook will be able to use that web browsing data to target adverts more specifically at users. Visit a site about the Premiership, and Facebook will know you like football. Visit a site about baking banoffee pie, and Facebook will know you have a soft spot for sticky banana desserts.
For years now, it has been understood that the ‘like’ button – even limited to the confines of Facebook – allows the site to gain a frighteningly accurate reading of people’s personality traits. In a research paper published in 2013, David Stillwell from Cambridge University explains that ‘your likes may be saying more about you than you realize.’ The research suggesting that the like button even allows the popular social media site to figure out if a person is gay, or how they choose to vote.
For this reason, people feel Facebook may have gone a step too far by also analyzing web browsing habits. Which, when done without an internet user’s express permission – and even when they are not a member of Facebook – is seen as a huge invasion of privacy.
One thing that many Facebook users may not realize is that it is possible to check the specifics of how the site personally targets ads at them on the ‘Ad Preferences’ page. On that page, Facebook discloses that it will indeed snoop on you as you browse the internet, explaining that ‘we show you ads based on things we think you care about. Your preferences include information from your profile as well as actions you take on and off Facebook.’
It does not matter if you use a separate ad blocker either. If you go on your ‘Ad Preferences’ page you will find a long list of categories that Facebook has decided you are interested in – often eerily accurate – although sometimes a little perplexing. Mine, for instance, informs me (in the food and drink category) that I like Lomi. Although I admit the Filipino/Chinese dish has never been a particular favorite of mine, it does at the same time get awfully close to a truth; that I love Asian cuisine above all others.
Facebook claims that next month’s changes are not invasive, saying in its blog that users can use Digital Advertising Alliance AdChoices website to opt out of targeted advertising. The truth, however, is that AdChoices will only let users stop being tracked by around 100 particular companies. EFF has been quick to point out that this ‘does not actually stop tracking’, but instead simply blocks the results of tracking from getting to specific firms.
According to Rainey Reitman, activism director at the EFF this is simply not enough,
‘Promising not to use information is not the same as promising to actually delete the data. The ‘Like’ data is especially problematic. Most people probably don’t even realize that whenever they load a page with a ‘Like’ button on it, Facebook gets a little information on them’.
If you are interested in knowing what information Facebook tells advertising companies about you, then you are well advised to go and look at your ‘Ad Preferences’ page. On that page, you can edit what advertisers find out about you – helping to tailor your advertising experience – or to delete things you would rather they didn’t see. This is something that you may need to start doing on a regular basis after Facebook’s new snooping regime kicks in next month – if you do not want this list to too closely reflect your browsing habits.