Facebook to Monitor User Activity Outside its Site

Brandon Dimmel's picture

Facebook has altered its privacy policy and it's unlikely the change will be popular with the social network's 1+ billion members. In the next few weeks, Facebook will begin tracking user activity outside of it's own web site, so that it can generate 'more appropriate' advertisements tailored towards its members.

In the past, Facebook kept close tabs on what its users posted to their profiles in an effort to bring forth more relevant advertisements. But the social network only monitored user activity on the Facebook website itself, including the pages they liked and the links they clicked on.

Facebook to Monitor Off-Site User Activity

Now, that's about to change. Facebook has announced that it will soon begin collecting data on off-site user activity, meaning that the social network will monitor the websites and apps you use when you're away from Facebook. In other words: if you frequently visit websites for electronics (such as BestBuy.com or Gamestop.com), you can expect to see advertisements for tech retailers the next time you visit Facebook.

It should be noted that Google has been using similar technology to track web users using their browsers since 2009. Google uses the technology to create what it calls "interest-based" advertisements on websites you visit regularly. (Source: cbc.ca)

Unsurprisingly, Facebook's change in policy has upset privacy protection agencies. "This is what Facebook does," noted Jeff Chester, and executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy. "Facebook is going to use multiple ways to track their users and sell them to their advertisers." (Source: mercurynews.com)

Web Browser 'Do Not Track' Feature Will Be Ignored

There's also outrage that Facebook will collect information about users, even if the "Do Not Track" feature found in most popular Internet browsers has been enabled. And, while it is possible to opt out of Facebook's new program for targeted advertisements, the process is awkward; those who want to opt out are instead directed off Facebook to the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) website.

The good news is that Facebook members can opt out of many ad networks when they reach the DAA site; that said, it's likely that those who are visiting the page will be confused as to why they were redirected to the DAA website in the first place. It should also be noted that the opt-out feature is likely cookie-based, meaning that the changes won't be permanent if you frequently clear your browser cookies, or if the cookie expires after a period of time.

Facebook Defends Policy Change

Facebook hasn't responded to those concerns, but it has offered a unique spin on the policy change: in a post on its website, Facebook suggested the adjustment was an improvement because it would allow users to see more relevant advertisements. In essence, Facebook thinks users will approve of the change because it will allow them to find products that suit their tastes, rather than seeing non-relevant ads.

Experts suggest that the changes aren't about users at all, and are instead about the social network's desire to compete with Google for advertising revenue. (Source: huffingtonpost.com)

What's Your Opinion?

What do you think of Facebook's policy to track off-site user activity? Have you attempted to opt out of Facebook's new targeted ads program? If so, what was your experience? Does it make any difference to you that Google has been employing similar technology to track user activity for the last 5 years? Lastly: when it comes to online advertising, would you rather see non-targeted ads or tailored advertisements based on websites you've visited previously?

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Kookie's picture

Have a question - I understand Google tracks, and to me it is not a big deal. However, Facebook is another animal! I make sure and "log out" every time I am in Facebook. Will that deter Facebook from tracking me? Also, I am quite careful regarding what I do post on Facebook, and also what I "like"!

Dennis Faas's picture

Unfortunately it won't matter if you've logged in, logged out, or if you refrain from "liking" - they can track your web browser and sessions using various technologies (web cookies, Javascript, images, etc). The only true way to be anonymous would be to use a virtual private network (VPN) and relay your Internet connection using a proxy server. Going this route usually costs money (at least, for decent and reliable service).

pindermu_2562's picture

I use the free program 'Ghostery' to control tracking. Don't know if it works with
Facebook, as I'm not a user of that community.

DavidFB's picture

Sorry, but Facebook has been doing this for some time. What's new is they've gathered enough information now (and tested) that they plan to implement advertising based on it and thus have to change the user agreement further.

Those Like buttons on web sites? Some of them are web beacons. Facebook logins on other sites (including this one)? Another way. And so forth.

It's not at all hard to tie your IP address to cookies and activity and thus tie our activity all over the place.

It will take an expert to understand all the nuances of how they're doing this and thus how to protect yourself. Blocking flash cookies is a probable other one. But the number one way to avoid it? Don't use Facebook. They wont stop this progression until people stop using it enough to make a bigger difference than the advertising revenue.

I can also note prior articles on this newsletter than note other aggregation services Facebook works with that have no obvious connection to them but which do some of the same things.

I would also suggest what Google is doing is distinct. It's integrating services to better track your usage of Google services. But it's just for local targeted ads. And there are some things you can do to reduce this, like using a search tool like StartPage (uses Google without tracking), not being logged in when you use YouTube, and so forth. They don't track you outside of Google nor sell user info to third parties like Facebook does.

Troublesome is that if it works for Facebook, more organizations will use it and the web will become dominated by advertising agendas rather than information.

norascats's picture

If Facebook is trying to target ads to my preferences, they are failing miserably. They do not feature the local merchants I want to see and support no matter how many times I "like" them. They would do better adjusting their parameters.

john.snow's picture

It's a bummer when Facebook will ignore a browser's Do Not Track request. It's like, there is no way for us to hide in Facebook's data collection.