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The Social Network is Stalking You

We shouldn’t have to choose between browsing the Web and keeping Facebook from tracking everything we do online.
Chris Conley,
Policy Attorney,
ACLU of Northern California Technology and Civil Liberties Project
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November 16, 2011

A new web feature by USA Today details the ways that Facebook stalks you around the Internet – even when you’re not logged in. Facebook’s tracking methods – in the guise of the innocent seeming “Like” button – record every web site its 800 million-plus members have visited during the previous 90 days, even if you never click on that button, or don’t have a Facebook account.

We shouldn’t have to choose between browsing the Web and keeping Facebook from tracking everything we do online. That’s why we’ve asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to look into Facebook’s practice of tracking your web activity even if you never click on a Like button or log into Facebook at all, and why we encourage you to tell Congress to take steps to protect our privacy by creating a “Do Not Track” mechanism with legal force. And, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has pledged to hold a hearing to investigate these reports.

Here’s what happens: when you visit any page on Facebook, it tacks “cookies” onto your browser, regardless of whether you have a Facebook account or are logged in. These cookies alert Facebook every time you visit a website that has a “Like” button or other Facebook social plug-ins. Given the number of sites that use “Like” buttons and other Facebook social plugins, Facebook has the ability to track a huge amount of your surfing habits. They know what you read, which videos you watch, what you buy, who your friends are and anything else you do online. Even if know this tracking is happening, you have no access to the information being compiled about you nor are you given the opportunity to correct any errors or clarify or delete anything misleading or just embarrassing. And while Facebook claims that it retains this information only to improve the effectiveness of its social plugins, profiles like these are a potential goldmine to online advertisers and can be irresistible to law enforcement, not to mention other third parties like insurance companies or divorce attorneys.

We need simple tools to protect ourselves against unwarranted invasion of privacy. One of the simplest ideas is a “Do Not Track” option, allowing us to use a single control to tell Facebook and other companies not to track our online activities. Although there has been progress recently towards a technical implementation of Do Not Track, we still need to work on getting Facebook and other web companies to comply. Please join us in asking Congress to step up and pass robust privacy laws to protect us from the kind of tracking that Facebook and other companies are already doing without our knowledge or consent.

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