FacebookSpyLast week, Facebook announced that it would now use personal information and browsing history to target a user with specific ads.  While targeted ads are nothing new, the amount of information that Facebook has on the average user is staggering and most people are all too eager to share even more.

Facebook’s new ad policy states that the social network will now gather information from third party websites as well as from information shared directly.  Many login based websites are equipped with a “convenience” feature that allows a user to login with Facebook as opposed to maintaining several different accounts.  As a user visits these sites, interests and browsing habits will be monitored and tabulated to deliver what the system believes to be appropriate advertisements.

The new ad policy runs contrary to Facebook’s own policies from just a few years ago.  Back in 2011, Facebook’s Help Center stated:

We do not share or sell the information we see when you visit a website with a Facebook social plugin to third parties and we do not use it to deliver ads to you. In addition, we will delete the data (i.e. data we receive when you see social plugins) associated with users in 90 days.

This paragraph no longer exists at the time of writing this article and there is no mention of user privacy protection in regards to ads.  Without enforced limitations on user data, Facebook is free to distribute or sell user data anyway it sees fit.

Facebook claims that the new ad system is optional and even promotes the ability to opt-out of the program.  However, the opt-out system is not actually run by Facebook itself, and instead makes use of a third party to manage the data (http://www.aboutads.info).  There are two major flaws with this system.  The first is that regardless of whether or not a user opts-out, Facebook will continue to gather information.  This leaves the advertiser in control as to whether or not they honor the privacy policy.  In practice, this is akin to coming face to face with a lion and politely asking it not to eat you.

This screen is what awaits you if you attempt to take advantage of Facebook’s recommended opt-out program.  Pay close attention to the bullet points at the bottom.

This screen is what awaits you if you attempt to take advantage of Facebook’s recommended opt-out program. Pay close attention to the bullet points at the bottom.

The second problem comes from how the opt-out program handles request.  If a user bothers to visit the opt-out website, they are presented with the option remove themselves from companies advertising lists.  However, all that the request does is place a “no track cookie” on the users’ browser.  That means that if a user were to sign in from a different computer or device, they would be once again susceptible to data mining.  What’s more, clearing your browser “cookies” would have the same effect as opting back into the program.

Most data mining services operate under the pretense that while they will target a user with advertisements, the users’ identity is masked as a simple number in the system.  This might be technically true but it is a crass oversimplification, especially when it comes to data collected via services like Facebook.  A users identity within the system might be a number but one level down from that number is everything that user has ever posted online; including names, mailing addresses and phone numbers.

Data mining via Facebook, Gmail or any of the countless other free services is part of the reality we live in and will not go away any time soon.  A user can try to wipe away their digital bread crumb trail but even drastic measures are unlikely to wipe the trail clean.  With that in mind, be aware of your digital presence and be responsible.  If you use the internet, someone, somewhere has information about you. Make sure you don’t go out of your way to give them more information than is necessary. It’s easier to wipe away your trail if you don’t leave much of one in the first place.

– Richard Keene
IT Computer Support of New York
Webmaster and Lead Designer