Facebook users can now see how they’re being tracked across the web

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Congress laid into Mark Zuckerberg for more than six hours over his company's policies and the Libra Project.
Image: YouTube | Washington Post

On Tuesday, Facebook announced that its “Off-Facebook Activity” tool is available to all members. The platform’s two billion users can now see how Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram gather intel about their online behavior. Zuckerberg promised the functionality back in 2018 when Facebook was under fire for the Cambridge Analytica scandal. After a long delay, it’s now publicly available.

The Off-Facebook Activity tool shows users which companies provide information to Facebook about their activities over the previous 180 days. Users can’t completely erase all of their data. However, they can shut down certain digital boundaries or limit how much is shared between sites. 

Facebook uses the information it gathers to support its sophisticated advertising service, which generated over $16 billion in the last quarter of 2018 alone. For many, the new level of openness will come as a shock. It reveals just how much Facebook knows about our lives, interests, and hobbies.

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Facebook’s Data Empire

Facebook’s reach is far and wide. The social media platform offers tracking pixels for other companies to use on their websites. These pixels automatically send data back to Facebook. Consequently, Facebook can receive user data even when they are logged out of the platform.

According to a 2019 Pew study, three-fourths of Americans don’t realize that Facebook gathers as much data as it does to optimize ad placements. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that 30 percent of the top 10,000 websites in the world use Facebook tracking pixels. 

Compared to other social media platforms and tech giants, Facebook’s new tool offers unmatched transparency. Facebook spokesperson Jay Nancarrow said, “Despite how commonplace this activity is across the Internet, we believe it’s important to help people understand why they’re seeing the ads they see and to give them control over how their data is used, regardless of the services they use.”

Digital Privacy Becoming More Important

Digital privacy will continue to be a big topic going forward as companies increase their online operations. While others continue to be exposed, the Off-Facebook Activity tool is a significant step in the right direction for a company that has received a lot of recent public backlash. 

Passed in 2018, California’s Consumer Privacy Law Act gives people more control over how their data is used, stored, and shared. At any time, people can request to see what information organizations have saved about them. They can also sue companies for misusing their data. 

At the same time, startups like Clearview AI have built businesses around scraping the internet for personal information. The secretive startup developed a database of facial images and created algorithms that allow law enforcement groups to search the web for individuals. This week, the first lawsuit was filed against the company’s practices.

Now more than ever, it’s important for us to carefully evaluate what we sign up for with online platforms and services. While we hope that companies treat consumer data with respect, we can take steps to protect ourselves. We have a growing toolkit of resources, like the Off-Facebook Activity tool, that we should use with confidence.

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