Facebook is tracking you whether you're logged on, logged off, or not even a Facebook user
A Facebook page is displayed on a computer. Is the popular social-networking site tracking you right now?
Well, I guess this is what a social network is all about. At least in Facebook's mind. You've probably heard about the new design overhaul that Facebook recently announced. It will let you incorporate music services like Spotify and Rdio; soon it will work with video services such as Netflix and Hulu.
But along with all the new functionality, there are a lot of ways you'll end up sharing information whether you're aware of it or not. Facebook calls the program "frictionless sharing." It means that when you listen to a song on Spotify, the fact that you have listened to that song can get published on your Facebook feed. If you read an article on a website outside of Facebook and that article has a Facebook Like button on it, your visit may show up in your feed.
Meanwhile, there are new concerns over exactly how Facebook is gathering information on you as you move around the web. "This is one of the great issues surrounding online privacy at the moment," says Jonathan Mayer, a fellow at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. "There's very little transparency about what companies do once they've collected a user's browsing history. Some will make some form of commitment to delete the information, usually after a few months, but beyond that, there's no transparency into what's going on."
The data collection, it turns out, is not just happening when you're logged in to Facebook. It's happening all the time. Says Mayer, "Facebook continues to track your browser. They claimed they removed cookies that identify who you are, but it's long been known in computer science that if you can track a person's browser, you can very often figure out who exactly the person is at chair behind browser. And in this case, Facebook presumably has an easy way of figuring that out, because they can look at which account that browser last logged into."
So if you're logged on or not, the data collection continues. But if you aren't even a member of Facebook, the company may still be watching. Ashkan Soltani is a consultant specializing in online privacy and security. He says, "So if you're a user without a Facebook account, and you visit Facebook.com, then you browse around the web, your click stream will be transmitted to Facebook. If there was a breach on their servers, there would be a click stream history, or your click stream history somewhere on their log files."
Facebook did not respond to our interview requests. Some apparent Facebook employees are quoted online saying that the data is collected to prevent phishing scams and spam attacks, and not to generate ads.
But the tracking continues. And Facebook is not a unique case, according to Mayer: "This is an issue in the online privacy debate that hasn't been addressed much. The debate's tended to focus on online advertising but in fact, social companies are increasingly in the tracking space. And Facebook isn't alone. With Twitter, the tweet button can be used to track. Twitter doesn't say what they do with the data from the tweet button. Google's +1 does the same."
There is a plug-in you can get that claims to block Facebook from following you all around the web. It's called Facebook Disconnect and you can get it here.
Also on today's program, a recent study lays out exactly how fast Facebook is taking over our lives. Turns out: way fast. Sixteen percent of our time online is now spent on Facebook. That's up from 2 percent just three years ago. In four years from now, it will be the only website left in the world. Well, probably not. But still. Popular.