Business

Here's how to defend yourself from Facebook's new browser-spying campaign

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Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell/VentureBeat

UPDATE (6/13 1:12 AM PST) An earlier version of this story suggested that Facebook transmits the browsing data of its members to its advertiser partners. In fact, it’s Facebook that uses the data to match its partners’ ads with consumers who might be likely to click them. The first sentence of the story has been changed to better reflect this. Additional information has also been added about browser data collected from Facebook partner sites that contain a “like” button. 

Facebook sent out a notice Thursday about its intention to begin using the browsing data of its members to target the ads of its advertising partners.

It’s a move that most observers saw coming, but one that Facebook has always denied — with vigor.

Facebook can’t capture data about you visiting just any site, only those that have partnered with it. Basically, any site that has a “like” button (such as this one) or that permits you to log in with your Facebook credentials is a Facebook partner. And by virtue of that fact the site will store data about your visit in your browser, which can later be read by Facebook. It makes no difference whether or not you click a “like” button while you’re at the site.

Here’s how Facebook describes it in its Terms of Service:

“We and our affiliates, third parties, and other partners (“partners”) use these technologies for security purposes and to deliver products, services and advertisements, as well as to understand how these products, services and advertisements are used. With these technologies, a website or application can store information on your browser or device and later read that information back.”

Facebook also released a video to advertisers and users Thursday morning explaining the company’s targeting practices. A common mantra among web marketers is that they’re actually doing consumers a favor by collecting the information they need to serve more relevant ads.

What to do (and not bother doing)

If you don’t want Facebook to collect and transmit your browsing data, you can take some steps to prevent it from doing so.

But first, here’s what not to do.

The advertising industry has put up a site called Your Ad Choices, which offers consumers a way to “opt out.” But the site lets you opt out of receiving ads that have been targeted at you based on your browsing data. But it will not let you “opt out” from companies harvesting your browsing data.

Nor can you expect to get any real relief by trying to tweaking your Facebook Privacy settings. Facebook announced today that it would be rolling out “ad preferences,” a new tool accessible from every ad on Facebook that “explains why you’re seeing a specific ad and lets you add and remove interests that we use to show you ads.” Of course, Facebook is not offering you a way to stop them from collecting your browsing data in the first place.

Several browser plug-ins will block sites like Facebook from dropping lines of code into your browser allowing it to track you.

One of the good ones is Do Not Track Me from Abine.com, a Boston-based firm that focuses on building browser tools to secure browsing data and other personal information.

Other solid recommendations that will work on Chrome and Firefox browsers are Ghostery and Disconnect.

And there more basic things you can do.

  • Use a unique email address to log into Facebook. This prevents Facebook from easily connecting your browsing activities to your real identity.
  • Avoid the temptation to log into any site or mobile app using your Facebook credentials. This is an invitation to that site or app report to Facebook when you visited and what you looked at.

Abine CEO Rob Shavell says he isn’t surprised by the news about Facebook.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more companies doing this,” Shavell told VentureBeat. “Having worked at a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, I think there’s a data bubble going on. There’s been so much money invested in ad tech companies, including Facebook, and so much hype around them, they are going to have to collect more and more personal data. There’s just too much pressure to make all that money back.”

Shavell says investors have put $6.5 billion behind advertising tech companies in the past two years.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on this story.


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