Who is tracking your movements online? You’d assume your ISP, and the government. How about Google? That’s a given. But what about social media sites, like Facebook? Well, they’re in on the act too, and they’re less than forthcoming with transparency.
In fact, in Europe, Facebook has received repeated warnings about user tracking. A Belgian court even threatened them with a €250,000 daily fine until they changed their tracking practices.
Got your interest? Good. Here’s how you stop Facebook tracking you around the internet.
How Does Facebook Track You?
We’ve become a society intent on sharing… everything. How many times do you scroll through your Facebook feed and sigh at the information people are spewing forth? It goes further than that.
The millions of Facebook “Like” and “Share” buttons added to seemingly every website funnel web browsing data into the Facebook advertising algorithm. Consequently, the types of sites you visit away from Facebook will fine-tune the ads shown to you inside the social media site, as well as its other services.
Furthermore, each site with a Facebook button places an individual cookie (what’s a cookie? Wait… what’s a supercookie?!) on your computer. Along with the “normal” tracking information, this file can contain your individual Facebook id number. And even if you’re signed out of Facebook, the tracking id contained in the cookie will inform the mothership of your internet whereabouts.
Facebook has long tentacles. It also owns a number of other popular services. Remember when Facebook bought WhatsApp? How about when it bought Instagram? Users of those services may feel like they’re posting data in a separate social bubble, but it all feeds back into the same Facebook ad algorithm. WhatsApp users can actually turn data sharing off. Instagram users aren’t so lucky.
Here’s What Facebook Presumes to Know
Facebook does, at least, let you see what it presumes to know about you. You can see your Facebook Ad Preferences right here. Some of mine are below.
The joke’s on them: I’ve never rated Call of Duty, but I do like music. Sweeping generalization, right there. Regardless of what they know about me (a healthy amount it’s wrong), it perfectly illustrates the advertising profile being built to serve you better ads.
But I Don’t Have an Account!
Yeah… that doesn’t matter. One of the reasons Facebook advertising is well targeted is the immense amount of websites feeding data into the algorithm. And that includes individuals using sites with a “Like” and “Share” button.
When you visit one of these sites, regardless of your Facebook user status, Facebook receive an IP address, location, browser details, and more.
And the best bit of all? Facebook tracking cookies never expire.
Why Is Facebook Tracking Me?
Advertising and money. They go hand in hand. Internet users are by now used to tracking technology. We’re tracked around the internet by numerous advertising companies, all making use of magical cookies.
old person on Facebook: snapchat is tracking u now so the gov can spy on u!
same person:*checks in literally everywhere they go on Facebook*
— EJ Gomez (@EJGomez) July 12, 2017
In addition, your data, regardless of user status, helps to increase their actionable advertising target data. It is win-win for Facebook. Concise data that their business account holders can make better use of.
Tracking and advertising are (unfortunately) central to the modern internet. Have you ever tried using NoScript or PrivacyBadger (more on these in moment)? Many sites literally break if the numerous tracking scrips cannot run.
How Do I Stop Facebook Tracking Me?
Okay, down to business. How do you actually stop Facebook tracking your movements around the internet? There are several great solutions and, better yet, many of them will stop other advertisers tracking you too.
Some websites rely on scripts. In this case, the script is a small piece of code that calls advertising (and other) trackers to your presence on a page. It is possible to block these scripts from running, on any web page you visit, using a browser extension.
- uBlock Origin is an excellent start. It features a number of built-in script-blocking lists, and is easy to use too. Better still, it has dedicated scripts for Disconnect filters (Disconnect is another useful extension), as well as some that specifically take aim at social media trackers. It is available for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and Safari. I would advise using uBlock Origin and whitelisting your favorite trusted sites — like MakeUseOf! It has blocked malvertising content on more than one occasion!
- NoScript is highly recommended, but can be a steep learning curve. Your internet that works everywhere might suddenly be completely broken because of the blocked scripts. So while your privacy will be excellent, you might struggle to book flights, or even watch a video without tweaking your script settings. In that sense, it is highly customizable.
- PrivacyBadger is one of the next best things to NoScript. Where NoScript is for techies (but worth learning, I might add), you could install PrivacyBadger on your Grandma’s computer, knowing she’ll be protected and able to book flights. PrivacyBadger uses an easy-to-manage system of colored sliders. Green means okay, Yellow means third-party tracking but necessary for a functioning web, Red means content and scripts have been disabled. PrivacyBadger is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.
If you’re using Chrome, you’re being tracked. It isn’t “just a Google” thing: all major browsers feature some form of tracking. But there are several lesser-known browser alternatives that focus exclusively on your privacy.
- Epic Privacy Browser “protects you from over 600 tracking attempts in an average browsing session” and can see lower-quoted prices for flights and other services.
- Tor is free anonymity software that usually runs as part of a modified Mozilla Firefox browser. It is well known as the home of darknet markets, dissidents, and other nefarious services. However, you can use it to stop trackers and keep your network traffic anonymous.
- Brave is a Chromium-based browser with a complete focus on privacy and security. It features an interesting approach to whitelisting: adding tiny micro-payments for your favorite publications. Check out our thorough Brave browser review.
Advertising Opt-Outs and Cookies
Users can opt out of behavioral advertising en masse using a regional tool.
- U.S. — Digital Advertising Alliance
- Canada — Digital Advertising Alliance
- E.U. — European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance
It can take a few tries to get all the advertisers to accept your opt-out request. The E.U. site is especially slow!
Furthermore, users should also disable third-party cookies in their browsers via the Settings menu. This will stop third-party advertisers and behavioral tracking cookies making their way onto your system to begin with. There are also some excellent extensions that can help you take of this too:
- Self-Destructing Cookies has been a privacy mainstay for years now. It gets rid of a websites cookies and LocalStorage as soon as you close a tab. Useful and important cookies can be easily whitelisted. Self-Destructing Cookies is available for Firefox.
- Cookie AutoDelete performs the same set of tasks for Chrome users.
Is It Really Necessary?
I think that very much depends on who you ask.
I would contend that stopping at least some of the online tracking is a good thing. And once you install a few extensions that illustrate just how many individual entities are following you around the internet, you might go further in your efforts avoiding internet surveillance. Furthermore, there is confusion surrounding some publicized services, such as Do Not Track.
The lines are easily blurred too.
Serial Facebook-posters reveal phenomenal amounts of personal data. Even if their privacy settings are restrictive, Facebook can use that data. And even if we’re concerned about what we’re posting, Facebook is incredibly good at drawing from the data, and creating correlations. Security expert, Bruce Schneier, believes “we tend to focus on the data collection because that’s easier to see. I think the real problem are the correlations, which are much harder to see.”
No, I do not want my period tracking app to connect to my facebook account, thank you very much indeed
— Martina Behm (@strickmich) February 11, 2016
I have a good friend who always says “Just give in to Google” and make their services better. And, he is right… at least in some ways. If we’re going to be advertised at, and if that advertising is helping to keep internet cogs whirring, why not at least see adverts that actually resonate with you? After all, you don’t have to click them. Just open a new tab, and search for the product yourself (all being tracked, of course).
At the end of the day, the options are there. Taking privacy into your own hands isn’t as arduous as some parties make out, but it does require a little research. Hopefully, we’ve pointed you in the right direction.
Do you keep your personal data under lock and key? Or do you proudly live your life across social media? Are you worried that Facebook is tracking too much? If so, how does it differ from Google? Let us know your Facebook privacy tips in the comments below!
Image Credit: By Sabphoto via Shutterstock