Facebook Tracks Your Browsing Even If You Don’t Have an Account

A lot of folks have been glued to the screen the last two days, as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg testifies before Congress on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. And it’s safe to say he’s not making us feel any better about our online experience.

“Mark Zuckerberg did little to help defuse digital advertising’s ‘creepy because it’s complicated’ reputation during a congressional hearing on April 10 in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal,” writes Digiday’s Tim Peterson. “He may have even inflamed it.”

As Peterson explains, the testimony clarified that yes, Facebook can track your online browsing activity even if you’ve logged off your Facebook account. Or even if you don’t have a Facebook account at all.

“Facebook even updated its Cookies Policy last week to clarify that the company is able to collect ‘information about your use of other websites and apps, whether or not you are registered or logged in,’ according to the revised policy that was published on April 4,” Peterson continues.

Let me repeat that: Facebook can track what sites you visit every time you’re online, whether you’re logged into Facebook or not.

From their own policy, they’ve made it clear that Facebook uses cookies to track you:

  • If you have a FB account (that one we expected), even when you’re not logged in (whoa there); 
  • If you use Facebook services, including their site and any apps, whether you have an account or not (ummm, we maybe suspected this); OR
  • Visit a site or app that uses FB’s services like the “Like” button or any of their advertising tools (what??!).

So, with all of that data, the primary question calling Mark to the table is simple – is his company up to handling all this personal data responsibly and safely? Or does the government need to step in?

In Europe, General Data Protection Regulation is set to take place in May, as Peterson reminds us. And Zuckerberg clearly understands that this may loom soon in the U.S. too, with a recent bill introduced that would establish the CONSENT Act, aimed at protecting online user rights. Zuckerberg agreed in testimony that a better opt-in process (rather than a default all-inclusive data scrape) would be in order, saying “I think that that certainly makes sense to discuss, and the details matter a lot.”

They sure do.  Yet there are two things that are becoming painfully obvious as the hearings continue:

  1. Zuckerberg himself is unclear about the depth and breadth and nuances of his own company’s data collection and use; and
  2. The senators asking the questions are clearly not technically savvy enough to even ask the right questions. How can they be expected to craft appropriate legislation to stop something they can’t even comprehend? How can we enact laws for technology that is evolving faster than we can legislate?

About a month ago Facebook made some rather bold statements that they are out to do good for their users, not simply make money off ads.

“We want to make sure that our products are not just fun, but are good for people,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with The New York Times. “We need to refocus the system.”

They’ll do this by “facilitating the most meaningful interactions between people,” according to previous statements, instead of simply helping people see more relevant content, which is the original premise of the site. In plain English, it’s social engineering. And we’ve seen the recent results of this.  

Meanwhile, digital advertising goes on. Our personal data continues to be mined, scrapped, botted and sold, as it becomes more apparent that we all work for Facebook. As it turns out, we work for them not just on their platform, but anytime we are online. And any thought of privacy online becomes almost laughable.

Feeling better now that we all understand a little bit more about how our data is being used? Yeah, me neither.