In a series of interviews with USAToday, Facebook has finally revealed how it tracks users and non-users across the web, gathering huge amount of data as it does so. Says ABCNews/USAToday:
Facebook officials are now acknowledging that the social media giant has been able to create a running log of the web pages that each of its 800 million or so members has visited during the previous 90 days. Facebook also keeps close track of where millions more non-members of the social network go on the Web, after they visit a Facebook web page for any reason.
Allegations from Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner that Facebook was creating “shadow profiles” of non-users were initially refuted by Facebook’s spokesman Andrew Noyes, who said categorically that “The allegations are false.”
But Facebook spokesman Barry Schnitt, engineering director Arturo Bejar, engineering manager Gregg Stefancik, corporate spokeswoman Jaime Schopflin, and Noyes have now revealed the extent of the company’s tracking. As previously thought, Facebook are using cookies to track anyone who visits a Facebook.com page.
From this point on, each time you visit a third-party webpage that has a Facebook Like button, or other Facebook plug-in, the plug-in works in conjunction with the cookie to alert Facebook of the date, time and web address of the webpage you’ve clicked to. The unique characteristics of your PC and browser, such as your IP address, screen resolution, operating system and browser version, are also recorded.
Facebook thus compiles a running log of all your webpage visits for 90 days, continually deleting entries for the oldest day and adding the newest to this log.
This means that Facebook could find out which web pages specific members visit after they have logged off, but Bejar says that Facebook don’t do this and “couldn’t do it without some form of consent and disclosure.”
The idea that we have to just trust Facebook not to act unethically with the data it gathers is risible, particularly given Facebook’s past laissez-faire attitude towards its users’ privacy. And it certainly hasn’t satisfied critics.
[US] Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said today he would hold a hearing to look into reports that Facebook is using cookies to track users even after they log out of the service.
“No company should track customers without their knowledge or consent, especially a company with 800 million users and a trove of unique personal data on its users,” [he said].
Facebook’s intrusion is hard to escape. Even if you aren’t a Facebook member, it’s difficult to avoid ending up on the site once in a while, and it’s certainly impossible to avoid going to sites with Facebook plug-ins and buttons. The ‘Like’ button is now so widespread that attempts to avoid it would require giving up on the web altogether.
There are tools to help protect users from Facebook’s surveillance, such as Priv3, Ghostery and Adblock Plus, but I’d hazard a guess that most users either don’t know about them, use browsers that don’t support such plug-ins, or simply don’t believe it’s a problem.
This latest confession from Facebook does beg the question: What kind of unethical behaviour will it take for Facebook users to rebel? Facebook is operating on the basis that it can pretty much get away with anything and, unfortunately, this seems to be mostly true. Its users don’t seem to care, leaving it up to regulators and politicians to hold the company to account. What could possibly go wrong with that?