15 October 2020

The Washington Post: “New ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ tool shows exactly how much the social network tracks your life”

Facebook is giving us a new way to glimpse just how much it knows about us: On Tuesday, the social network made a long-delayed “Off-Facebook Activity” tracker available to its 2 billion members. It shows Facebook and sister apps Instagram and Messenger don’t need a microphone to target you with those eerily specific ads and posts — they’re all up in your business countless other ways.

Now I have to share a bummer: Changing these settings doesn’t actually stop Facebook from collecting data about you from other businesses. Facebook will just “disconnect” it from your profile, to use the social network’s carefully chosen word. Mostly they’re just promising they’ll no longer use it to target you with ads on Facebook and Instagram — which means you’ll be less likely to be manipulated based on your data. (Facebook has separately said that starting this summer we will be able to adjust a setting to see fewer political and social issue ads on Facebook and Instagram.)

Geoffrey A. Fowler

This new privacy option was launched at the end of January (another thing I have been meaning to write about for some time) and I tested it shortly after. Here is the direct link to avoid going through Facebook’s convoluted menus. As with most Facebook privacy initiatives, this one comes with a catch: if you disconnect future off-Facebook activity, you will no longer be able to use Facebook login on other apps and websites, while Facebook continues to collect your activity data for itself. This can be an inconvenience – I previously used Facebook on a number of sites to speed up account creation and to quickly connect with my friends network – and possibly in breach of GDPR. But without tough regulation and enforcement against the social network, this pattern of releasing cosmetic changes to privacy settings while retaining effective ownership of data will not be broken.

Off Facebook Activity tracker Manage Future Activity Off Facebook Activity tracker Future Off-Facebook Activity Off Facebook Activity tracker Clear History
To see what information Facebook has collected about you from other apps, websites and businesses, go to Settings, then Your Facebook Information, then Off-Facebook Activity

Don’t businesses worry we’ll find this to be oversharing? Most probably never thought we’d find out. Facebook says companies are required to provide us “robust notice” that they’re sending data about our activity to the social network. But I found that very few explained this tracking in clear terms.

Facebook wants to paint surveillance as totally normal. Zuckerberg often says people want to see “relevant” ads. I wonder whom he’s asking. About 81 percent of the public say that the potential risks they face because of data collection by companies outweigh the benefits, according to Pew.

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