How to protect your privacy from Facebook

At long last, Facebook is letting us see the data it and other companies are collecting from you -- some of which has nothing directly to do with what you're doing on Facebook.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

We know Facebook likes to play Big Brother. Collecting, sharing, and using your personal data is how Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg became worth more than $80 billion. What you may not know is just how much of your data Facebook and its allies collect about you even when you're not on Facebook. Now, thanks to Facebook's release of Off-Facebook Activity (OFA) tools, we can see more, but not all, of what Facebook and friends know about us. 

What are Off-Facebook Activity (OFA) tools?

Facebook spins OFA as Facebook helping you gain control of your personal data, but the reality is darker.  Facebook has been slowly forced to let you see more of what and how Facebook uses your data. It all began when it was revealed that Facebook had shared users' data with Cambridge Analytica. That analysis company,  in turn, used your data to help elect Donald Trump. Facebook claimed it didn't know what was going on. It's since been shown that Facebook knew what Cambridge Analytica was up to before it was publicly revealed

Because of this, and other social networks' privacy and security violations, the California Consumer Privacy Act now requires Facebook and other companies to reveal more about the data it collects and shares about you. In other words, Facebook had no choice but to finally come clean --  or at least cleaner -- about what is up to with your data.

What data is Facebook collecting? 

Besides the obvious -- your name and that you liked Aunt Jodie's funny cat picture -- businesses that use Facebook Business Tools, such as Facebook Pixel, the Facebook Software Development Kit (SDK), and Facebook Login and Account Kit, also share what they know about you with Facebook. Specifically, they track when you're:

  • Opening an app
  • Logging into an app with Facebook
  • Viewing content
  • Searching for an item
  • Adding an item to a shopping cart
  • Making a purchase
  • Making a donation
  • When you've been naughty or nice

OK, I made up the last one, but when you use Facebook, you really are giving up your privacy in ways that would make Santa Claus envious. 

Here's what that means in real life. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Facebook tracks you on 30% of the top 10,000 websites. On my own account, I see that Facebook and its partners have data on me from 955 apps and websites that I've used or visited in the last 180 days. That includes every time I checked my Ring doorbell, the time I checked StubHub for WVU-Kansas basketball tickets, and how often checked into Zillow since I'm looking for a new home. And, of course, all the dozens of different sites I visit every day. 

That may be only the tip of the iceberg. If you do a little digging, you'll find Facebook admit:

For technical and accuracy reasons, this list doesn't show all the activity that we've received. Activity that is not shown includes information we've received when you're not logged into Facebook, or when we can't confirm that you've previously used Facebook on that device. It also includes details such as the item you added to your shopping cart.

So, what can you do about it? 

First, forget about Facebook deleting your data or even stopping its snooping. Yes, you can clear your Facebook history, but that does not delete it. Instead, Facebook states your "activity history will be disconnected from your account. We'll continue to receive your activity from the businesses and organizations you visit in the future."

Isn't that reassuring? 

The only real way out is to delete your Facebook account. But, even then, Facebook says it will take up to 90 days to remove all your data. It doesn't, however, spell out what it does with your activity history. 

What you can do today is turn off, sort of, the data Facebook and its partners share on you. But, even then, Facebook says: "We'll still receive activity from whatever site. It may be used for measurement purposes and to make improvements to our ads systems, but it will be disconnected from your account." You can believe Facebook if you like. I'm inclined to doubt it.

Still, if you're stuck on Facebook because that's where your friends and family hang out, you might as well make the most of OFA. 

Here's how:

Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity

First, go to the Off-Facebook Activity page. To view this page, you may need to enter your Facebook password. This is normal. Here, you'll find more information on how OFA works.  

I then recommend you go to Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity page via the top-link in the right-hand column. On this page, you'll find all the sites and services Facebook is sharing data with and vice-versa. 

To see exactly what each one is up to in general terms, click on the ones you're concerned about. Since you probably have hundreds of them, I doubt you'll want to go through all of them. 

Turn off future activity

From the Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity pages, toward the bottom of the display, you have the option of "Turn off future activity." Again, that doesn't stop either Facebook or the company from getting your data; it just breaks, in theory, the connection between your Facebook identity and your data.

Clear History

You can also just "Clear History." 

You'll find this option off the Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity page on the right-hand column. It will disconnect your account from all the sites and services currently following you. Again, though, this doesn't "clear" anything. It just snaps the link between your account and Facebook's partners. Both they and Facebook will continue to receive your activity from when you visit their sites and services. If you do this, you may also be logged out of any site you use a Facebook login to connect with. 

More Options

You're not done yet. Head back once more to Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity. There, click on "More Options" on the right-hand column. Once that's done, toward the bottom of the column, you'll see a link to Manage Future Activity. Click on it, and you'll get another window with a button for, once again, Manage Future Activity.  

From here, you get an option that says: "Your future off-Facebook activity saved with your account allows us to personalize your experience." If you turn this off, you'll more permanently break the connection between your account and everyone else. The one thing, in particular, that we know will happen is that you'll no longer be able to use Facebook to log into third-party websites.

At the end of all this, Facebook and friends will still be spying on you, but at least they'll be seeing through a dark glass instead of looking right at you. For more on how to secure your personal information on Facebook, take these steps. 

Again, the only real way out of Facebook is to give it up. I know that's easier said than done, but it's the only way to be sure. 

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