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What Facebook's 'off-Facebook activity' tool does

Facebook’s new tool lets you turn off tracking, but advertisers are still on your tail.

Facebook’s latest privacy change is the most significant yet and the one finally likely to confirm the hunch that you are being spied on as you surf the web.

The “off-Facebook activity” tool went live to all of Facebook’s 2.4 billion users on January 28 after a lengthy delay. Founder Mark Zuckerberg blamed that on technical issues, but the reality is that Facebook never wanted to turn this feature on.

Only the data scandals of recent years, capped off with a US$5 billion fine in the US for transgressions Facebook committed as part of the Cambridge Analytica data-privacy breach, have brought it to this painful place.

The new tool lets you quickly see the extent to which websites you visit on the internet are tracking your web-surfing activity and sending the intel to Facebook. The companies behind these websites – and there are tens of millions of them – use tools including the Facebook Pixel, an invisible code embedded on a webpage and literally the size of a digital pixel, to gather the information and funnel it to Facebook.

Why do they do it? Because those companies can use that pixel to find out how effective their advertising on Facebook is and to serve up “better” adverts aimed at your next visit.

How many times have you been researching a holiday or looking at furniture only to see those items turn up in ads on Facebook? That’s the pixel at work.

My off-Facebook activity is immense. I found it by going to “Settings” in the Facebook app and looking under “Your Facebook Information”. There are 920 websites I visit that share information about me with Facebook, everything from Stuff to the Guardian to Trade Me and ASB Bank.

I’m fairly comfortable with this. I’d rather have ads in my Facebook newsfeed that are relevant to me than random ones that just annoy me. The only time I have ever clicked on an advert and bought something is on Facebook.

Now, at least, you can easily delete that tracking, in the same way you can delete your web browser history in Chrome or Firefox. You can also set it so that your future browsing details aren’t captured.

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo/Getty Images

That won’t stop companies trying to target ads at you – there are other ways they can find out details about you. If, for instance, you use the Facebook sign-in button to securely authenticate your user name and password on a website, then the website can access your public Facebook profile and learn when you like a post on its website. It will also know when one of your Facebook friends logs on to the site, and other things, if you give it permission when you first sign up.

You can turn tracking off, delete your history and avoid the sign-in button to protect your privacy. But a host of other online companies are now trying to beat Facebook at its own game. Like Facebook, many of them are targeting your physical location using the GPS feature on your phone.

A friend recently walked into Noel Leeming in the revamped Westfield shopping mall in Newmarket. Almost immediately, he received an email to his phone with the electronics retailer’s latest offer. Just coincidence? Maybe not.

Westfield Plus is a new app, which my friend has on his phone, that allows him two hours’ free parking at one of Westfield’s malls, but which also gathers details about him and detects his location. If he logs on to the free Wi-Fi at the mall, they can track his web activity, too.

Westfield says it isn’t tracking app users’ movements around its malls, but it has the right to do so, because you consent to it when you accept its privacy statement in the app. The key, which Facebook learnt the hard way, is transparency.

The data harvest continues, but the days of trying to bury that activity in obscure privacy statements are fast coming to an end.

This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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