Facebook tool lets users see which apps, websites tracked them

Mike Isaac, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 21 2019 09:43 AM

Facebook tool lets users see which apps, websites tracked them 1
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks about protecting election integrity, fighting "fake news" and data privacy at Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, US. Stephen Lam, Reuters/File

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has built an extensive network of tracking technology outside of its core social network to bolster its targeted advertising business. That has allowed the company to collect information about its users’ browsing habits, even when they were not using the social network.

On Tuesday, Facebook said it was changing its practices related to that data — kind of.

The company introduced a new tool that lets people better see and control the information that Facebook has gathered about their browsing habits outside the social network.

The tool, Off-Facebook Activity, allows users to view the hundreds of sites and apps that share data and customer information with Facebook. They can disconnect the data from their account if they want.

“This is another way to give people more transparency and control on Facebook,” the company said in a blog post. It added that people generally had more than 80 apps on their phones and used about half of them every month, making it difficult to know which ones had collected personal information and how the data was being used.

The introduction of the new tool is Facebook’s latest response to criticism over how it safeguards users’ privacy. The issue exploded last year after The New York Times and other outlets reported on how a British consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, had harvested the personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users without their permission.

Facebook has been trying since then to contain the fallout, attracting scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world. Last month, the company reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations, agreeing to pay a $5 billion fine and to change how it handled users’ data.

Amid the backlash over Facebook’s approach to privacy issues, Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, has said the company would develop a technological solution that would give people the ability to clear their browsing histories.

Facebook said it initially hoped to provide an option that would let users delete the entire repository of data that the company collected from other sites to improve its targeting of ads. But Facebook said its research showed that people did not want such an all-or-nothing option. Instead, Facebook said, users frequently asked for better visibility into which sites were providing browsing-habit data to the company, and for more control over how the information was shared.

The new tool will not be a cure-all for those concerned about privacy on Facebook. The company will continue to retain all browsing data of users on Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.

Yet by giving people the option of wiping clean their browsing history outside Facebook and its apps, the company is taking a risk because of its partial dependence on such information for targeting ads at users. The company said it was prepared for the consequences of users’ deciding to exercise greater control over their privacy by using the tool.

“If this were widely adopted, it would mean less overall revenue for Facebook,” David Baser, a director of product management at the company, said in an interview. “And that’s OK.”

The new tool can be found in the settings menu of the Facebook app. Once people click on it, they can look into an itemized history of the outside apps and websites they have visited that have shared data with the social network. They can also see the types of data the apps and sites have shared.

A user might see that a site for a clothing retailer had one of Facebook’s tracking cookies installed on its webpage. If a customer browsed a pair of pants on the site and then returned to Facebook, the social network’s tracking technology may have shown that user an ad for the same pair of pants inside the Facebook app.

Beyond having access to the itemized browsing history, people can also use the tool to disconnect the historical browsing data from their accounts entirely, or to remove data from individual sites and apps. The tool also lets people turn off data-sharing from all sites and apps off Facebook in the future.

Facebook said that the new tool would be rolled out gradually in the coming months, beginning Tuesday in Ireland, South Korea and Spain.

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