Is Facebook Tracking Your Online Activity?

Category: Facebook

Sometimes I see ads on Facebook that are very closely related to websites I have recently visited. Even scarier, my sister said she saw my face on the CNN website, in a list of people who 'liked' an article. I do enjoy using Facebook, but are they really able to track every move I make on the Web? If so, what can I do to protect my privacy online?

Does Facebook Know What Sites I Visit?

It seems that almost every Web page you visit these days bears a Facebook "Like" button. Indeed, millions of Web sites worldwide have added this Facebook widget. One-third of the 1,000 most-visited Web sites use the Facebook "Like" widget, according to a study performed by The Wall Street Journal. But there's a lot not to like about what Facebook calls its "social plugin," from a privacy standpoint.

The WSJ found that the social plugin notifies Facebook that a person visited a site, even if the person does not click on the "Like" button. This information is linked to the person's Facebook profile. That's why some sites are able to tell you that a Facebook friend of yours "liked" the page you are now viewing, and even show you any comments about the page that your Facebook friend made.

For the social plugin to work, a person need only log in to Facebook once in the past month. It stops reporting which sites you visit only when you log out of your Facebook account.
Facebook Tracking

Facebook is not alone in distributing this sort of widget. Google's Buzz service has one, and so does Twitter. Web site operators like the widgets because they build traffic by making it easy for visitors to share what they're viewing. Tracking users is just an "unavoidable side effect," they say.

Twitter says it does not do anything with the data its widget collects, and discards it "quickly". Google keeps browsing data for two weeks, while Facebook retains it for 90 days.

Protecting Your Privacy: Steps You Can Take

Privacy advocates are concerned about the Facebook widget which links browsing data to a Facebook member's profile. Your profile may well include your name and other identifying data, giving marketers the potential ability to build a complete dossier on your Internet activity.

To foil Facebook's social plugin, you can use three different methods:

  • Log out of your Facebook account every time you finish a session there.
  • Go to the Privacy Settings on your Facebook Account page. Click on "Apps, Games, and Websites" in the lower left corner. Disable the "Instant Personalization" option.
  • A browser extension called Disconnect blocks Facebook and other tracking technologies for Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome browsers. It was created by Brian Kennish, a former Google engineer.

Tracking users across the Web sites they visit is nothing new. Advertising networks have used cookies to track browsers for many years. But the rise of Facebook's social plugin and other "smart widgets" that can tie browsing data to a personal profile may represent a bigger threat to privacy.

Are you concerned about these potential privacy implications, or is it no big deal? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Is Facebook Tracking Your Online Activity?"

Posted by:

28 Jun 2011

I have sent this to my friends and family members, who use Facebook. There have been problems with unauthorized use of our information. I hope the suggjestions you made will help. Thank You

Posted by:

Peter Woolvett
28 Jun 2011

Hi Bob,

It is very scary to see that Facebook follows us around. It used to make me very uncomfortable until I realized that:

1. Facebook can be customized
2. Social Networking is only for people who wishes to be seen. Otherwise, you can stay away from social sites or
3. Control what Facebook knows about you.

By the way, I really enjoy reading your newsletter.


Peter Woolvett
Head Consultant

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

My "Instant Personalization" option is disabled. That doesn't prevent this problem. I will try the Disconnect plugin. Thank you Bob for this interesting article.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

Yes. Privacy issues are paramount to democracy issues. All of this has gone way too far. The merging of facebook, twitter, AT&T, etc. with CIA/FBI/Homeland Security etc. interests should be a red flag to all.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

I tried Disconnect for Firefox. It worked perfectly. Thanks Bob for this suggestion.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

One of the Reasons I Deleted my Spybook account. ,also it is a CIA backed site.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You're saying that Facebook is backed by the CIA? Are you just repeating one of those "my cousin Vinny heard it from a guy who knows somebody who used to be a cop" rumors? Or will you offer some credible proof?

Posted by:

Rick Savadow
29 Jun 2011

A friend posted a link of Beyonce doing Let's Move with a group of Harlem school kids. I followed the link & watched it. Fun video. I also watched the original version. I enjoyed it, but did not "Like" it. 10 minutes later I had an email from iTunes offering a special price on Beyonce's new album. Now that is interesting.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

Zuckerberg's little property not only has brought him billions from marketers eager to advertise to you and your friends, Facebook is also the perfect conduit for surveillance by police states.

What Facebook marketers do with their tracking information is anyone's guess, but a sovereign state has police powers sufficient to obtain the information.

Facebook is a bad idea-- consumer and citizen-hostile-- but a profitable device sold to business, and executed well enough for Zuckerberg to claim each user is in control of his privacy, after a fashion.

The degree of that control is absolutely critical to Facebook users in countries struggling under a police state. As one Facebook user in Belarus complained, privacy is simply a business objective to Facebook, but a matter of life-and-death to demonstrators and other dissidents.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

What about Ghostery?

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

Facebook, and other social websites, together with many of the worlds media, are treating internet users as nothing more than FREE fodder for advertisers. We pay large sums of money for our internet connection and are being treated like pawns. It is time advertisers had to ask us for our permission to contact us, or to invade the pages we log on to, with their advertising.
Most websites demand we accept cookies being placed on our computers, just to facilitate this - They are to be damned for this.
Cheers all.

Posted by:

Digital Artist
29 Jun 2011

Every company, every celebrity, every politician is on facebook. I am not on facebook and I feel that I am missing out on something, but I am not sure what that is, and I am pretty sure that the participation is not worth whatever facebook extracts from its users. Same for twitter. I will just watch from the sidelines, at least for a while longer. And now Google enters the fray with GooglePlus.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

Facebook is the most dangerous site ever invented, it is a godsend to perverts and groomers.
I got a message from a friend so went to his wall, on there I saw my name, so I clicked onto it and photos of my grandchildren were shown, this is very dangerous practice if anybody can see my young grandchildren by clicking onto my name.

Posted by:

29 Jun 2011

Hi Bob,
interesting article.

I presume that facebook can only trace your activity if using the same browser which you've logged in through? I usually use a combination of browsers as some sites simply don't work properly in some browsers.


Posted by:

01 Jul 2011

Great article Bob. I had no idea there were so many privacy options. I've never even looked at the Privacy settings.
I use Facebook mainly to see the pictures my kids post. It is a great medium for sharing pics.

Posted by:

07 Jul 2011

I installed Disconnect on Firefox but certain apps and facebook features will not work unless I disable it. Am I doing something wrong? I only installed it because it is pretty creepy to use the facebook chat box and then have ads pop up in facebook for whatever I was chatting about. Thank you for any help you can give me.

Posted by:

15 Oct 2011

It's unbelievable.. but in the same time I'm not surprised that Facebook will do just about anything to increase their earnings caring not about us (the users) and our right to privacy!!

My take on this:

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