Airbnb, Tinder, British Airways, Duolingo, Spotify and even Marketplace are just some of the hundreds of websites that Facebook says have shared my data with the social network. Based on that list alone, you can probably work out more about me than I might want to share.
This is all part of Facebook’s Off-Facebook Activity, a new tracking tool that went into wide release yesterday. It lists all of the companies and websites that share activity like views, purchases or even just when you open an app. Facebook uses all that data to allow advertisers to create messages that are tightly targeted to you and your interests.
I asked Geoffrey Fowler, technology columnist for the Washington Post, if having access to this information really changes anything. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Geoffrey Fowler: I think that transparency is actually a really important first step here. When we know what companies are actually collecting about us, we can have an honest conversation about what what kinds of tracking is OK, and not OK. I think there is some value in that, even though I know most people aren’t going to take the time to go and do it, like you or I or privacy nerds might do. After that’s said and done, Facebook actually did give us a few new controls over some of this data that I think folks are going to want to change right away. You can go in and say, “Facebook, delete this data you had about me before. And also don’t associate it with my account in the future.” Which basically means that they won’t use the data they receive from all these third-party apps and websites to target ads at you in the future. The caveat here is it won’t actually stop Facebook from collecting the data. They’re just now promising if you click that button that they won’t use it to target ads to you anymore.
Jack Stewart: I ran mine through. I have 432 apps and websites that have shared my activity with Facebook. Some really invasive-feeling things like dating websites, for example. Why would Facebook care about that sort of thing?
Fowler: Facebook is the Hungry Hungry Hippo of Silicon Valley. It wants to gather as much information as it can about us. Who knows how it might be useful for it in the future. In the short term, it uses this data to sell ads to these companies, but then think about this in the case of politics. I noticed in my list that the website for Mayor Pete [Buttigieg], which I apparently had checked out at some point, had a Facebook tracker on it and let them know. That’s why I’ve been getting all these ads for Mayor Pete. You can really micro-target down to particular people’s interests. Also, when it comes to politics, to their fears, to what sorts of articles they tend to read, it gives a lot of power and control over to the advertisers.
Stewart: Do you think moves like this are enough to keep Facebook and other tech companies ahead of any impending regulations of their actions?
Fowler: Nope. I don’t think so at all. I think there’s a little bit of desperation among them. I think they’re very worried. I heard a speaker talk about there [being] hundreds of new local laws that have been proposed so far this year in 2020, so I think we’re going to see a lot more bills like the California Consumer Privacy Act — CCPA — maybe even federal legislation. Transparency alone isn’t going to get them out of this bind.
Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart
Fowler’s article at the Washington Post explains that none of this is necessarily a privacy violation, and that Facebook is far from alone in doing this. You can reasonably expect a wide selection of the websites you use to be doing it, too. But the likes of Google don’t give us insights like this yet.
The Off-Facebook Activity tool allows you to unlink some of this tracking. It says the data will still come from these other websites, but it won’t be linked to your account if you opt out. We’ll link you back to some of our digital privacy coverage, like the introduction of the California Consumer Privacy Act.
As we reported this week, that does give some protections, but it’s unwieldy, to say the least. You want to know what information about you is out there? Try reaching out to around 150 data brokers.
Of course, for Facebook, all this comes after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, a 16-month federal investigation into Facebook, and a $5 billion fine for abuse of users’ privacy.
CNET is reporting on the U.S. Department of Justice setting up interviews with Facebook’s rivals as part of its antitrust investigation, something it says is a sure sign that the agency is moving ahead with that probe. With that, the elections and the Democratic presidential candidates’ comments about big tech, it’s going to be an interesting year for these companies.