Is Facebook Harnessing Big Data To Track All Your Web Activity?

Recent research commissioned by the Belgian Privacy Commission and conducted by the Computer Security and Industrial Cryptography Department (Cosic) at the University of Leuven, and the Media, Information and Telecommunication Department (Smit) at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, has reported that Facebook is tracking all of its visitors’ web activities, even if specific visitors are not Facebook account holders or even if they have opted out of tracking (in the EU).

Are We Being Traced?

The report states that Facebook is tracking the movements of its visitors, without consent and claims the social media giant is doing this in order to improve its targeted advertising. Facebook does this by using tracing cookies, which attach to a person’s computer each time they visit Facebook, a domain owned by Facebook, or a site which carries one of its social plug-ins, such as the ‘Like’ button.

The report claims that people are being misled by Facebook, because many would think they need to actually interact with Facebook, i.e. click the ‘Like’ button or physically engage with Facebook and accept that cookies are going to be placed on their computer, however, the report states that this is not the case. The research shows that even if a user does not interact and even if they go as far as to opt out, Facebook still places cookies on their computer.

The report states Facebook “did not remove any of the cookies stored in the browser, including the ‘fr’ cookie, which, according to Facebook’s 2012 statements, is used for advertisement purposes”.

The researcher’ findings suggest Facebook is using a uniquely identifying cookie, with a lifespan of two years, which is placed on European user’s computers upon accessing a Facebook domain or a website containing a social plugin for Facebook.

Facebook’s data usage policy does state that information is collected when users visit or use third-party sites (as well as apps), however EU privacy law requires user consent the first time a user visits a website, before cookies are placed on a their computer; something which the report claims, Facebook is not following through on.

When approached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson stated that the “authors have never contacted us, nor sought to clarify any assumptions upon which their report is based. Neither did they invite our comment on the report before making it public”.

The Facebook spokesperson also stated that they had offered to meet with the Belgian Privacy Commission in order to address the inaccuracies, however, have not yet been given the opportunity. It therefore remains to be seen whether the report is indeed correct and Facebook is making the use of big data to track all your web activity…No doubt this will not be the last we hear of this issue.

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