It is well known that Facebook tracks the activity of its users. What is less known is that such tracking takes place even on other sites. Even worse, it has just been revealed that Facebook also tracks Internet users who have no Facebook account, even if they have never visited Facebook’s website. In fact, the social-media giant is building secret files on the Internet activity of literally billions of Internet users.
Given that this allows Facebook to know the sites you visit, what you type, what you watch and listen to, who you communicate with, what credit cards you use, what you have searched for, and nearly everything else about your online activities, the invasion of privacy would be difficult to measure; it’s somewhere between way too much and complete.
To be fair, it is safe to assume that Facebook users have always at least imagined that the company keeps track of their use of the site itself. Would anyone really be shocked to learn that Facebook knows that a user liked a post? But, how far does it go?
Facebook published a “help” article to explain what is collected. Users can even download that data and look at it. It is long and detailed. It lists 70 different categories of data, including chat logs, credit cards, e-mail addresses (even those you may have removed), IP addresses and networks you’ve used to log in, ads you’ve clicked, and ad topics you may be targeted with based on your web browsing, and more.
That is a great deal more information than many people would be comfortable sharing, but again, to be fair, this is data the user makes available to Facebook by using the site to access the service. But what about Internet users who don’t even have — or have never had — a Facebook account? That is where the situation moves from intrusive to dicey — because without an account, users cannot even download the data to see what Facebook knows about them. Furthermore, the downloadable data includes only information from “Facebook” and does not include what the company has gleaned from other methods, including tracking pixels.
To add injury to insult, while Facebook users can see the data the company collects from their use of the site, there is no method to have it removed from Facebook’s servers. Once the company has it, it is essentially theirs.
So, a company you may have never had any agreement with is able to track your Internet activities, compile and keep a startlingly accurate digital dossier on you, sell that information to others for advertising (or other) purposes, and does not share with you what they know about you— at least in the United States.
Some other nations have stricter laws about what Internet companies can gather from people who have never agreed to their terms and conditions. For instance, last month, a court in Belgium ordered Facebook to stop gathering data on users who do not have a Facebook account. The court also said that the company could face fines of more than $300,000 per day for violating that order. Facebook — defending its practices as “industry standard technologies” — has said it plans to appeal the ruling.
As of this writing, this writer has been waiting for about two hours for an e-mail from Facebook with a link to download my own data. What I see may surprise me, but most of it will be older data, since I have spent the past few years practicing much better privacy protection. For instance, I run the Brave browser, which includes the NoScript plugin by default. This wonderful little plug-in blocks scripts from running unless I choose to allow them. I run that NoScript in Firefox and Chrome, as well.
For more information about protecting your digital privacy, check out the first article I wrote for The New American. It is a little dated, but the advice I cover in that article is still sound.