Technology

Facebook Tracked Your Web Browsing History For Years. You Can Finally See That Data.

After a long delay, Facebook is releasing a tool that will allow people to see what kind of information it has collected about their online activity beyond its borders — from the news they read, to the shopping websites they visit, to the porn they watch — along with an option to disassociate that data from their accounts.

Facebook collects information about its users in two ways: first, through the information you input into its website and apps, and second, through tracking which websites you visit while you’re not on Facebook. That’s why after you visit a clothing retailer’s website, you’ll likely see an ad for it in your Facebook or Instagram News Feed. Basically, Facebook monitors where you go, all across the internet, and uses your digital footprints to target you with ads. But Facebook users have never been able to view — much less purge — this external data Facebook collected about them, until now.

Facebook tracks your browsing history via the “Login with Facebook” button, the “like” button, Facebook comments, and little bits of invisible code, called the Facebook Pixel embedded on other sites (including BuzzFeed). Today, the company will start to roll out a feature called “Off-Facebook Activity” allowing people to manage that external browsing data, and finally delivering on a promise it made over a year ago when Mark Zuckerberg announced at a company event in 2018 that it would develop a feature called “Clear History.”

The new tool, now called “Off-Facebook Activity,” will display a summary of those third-party websites that shared your visit with Facebook, and will allow you to disconnect that browsing history from your Facebook account. You can also opt out of future off-Facebook activity tracking, or selectively stop certain websites from sending your browsing activity to Facebook. Nearly a third of all websites include a Facebook tracker, according to several studies.

People in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain will gain access to “Off-Facebook Activity” first. Facebook said it will continue rolling out the feature everywhere else over the coming months. The tool, found in account settings > “Off-Facebook Activity,” includes an option allowing you to “clear” your browsing history.

However, it’s important to note that neither Facebook’s announcement nor screenshots of the feature mentions the word “delete” — and that’s because the browsing isn’t being deleted, it’s simply disassociated from your Facebook account, according to a Facebook spokesperson. In other words, Facebook will still hold on to the data, but will anonymize it rather than pair it with your profile.

For example, although your browsing history won’t be used to advertise a discount to an online store you’ve visited before, the activity will still appear in aggregated audience data shown to developers using Facebook’s analytics tools.

If you disable off-Facebook activity collection or clear off-Facebook activity history, your browsing history won’t be used to target ads to you on Facebook, Instagram, or Messenger Facebook’s chief privacy officer Erin Egan wrote in a blog post.

However, the data isn’t being removed from Facebook servers. Just as Facebook still collects aggregated, anonymous browsing information from people who are logged out or don’t have Facebook accounts, Facebook will treat people who have opted out of external website tracking similarly, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News.

The tool is finally launching, more than a year after the company initially said it would release the feature, originally marketed as “Clear History” by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the company’s May 2018 developer conference, F8. In February, people familiar with the origins of Clear History said that Zuckerberg rushed the announcement at the event as a public relations play to curb criticism over the company’s stance on privacy and customer data in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Clear History, along with an international ad campaign focused on how “fake news” and “clickbait” “is not your friend, and a privacy-themed pop-up store in New York City, were the company’s attempts at garnering goodwill, people who spoke to BuzzFeed News earlier this year said.

“It’s public relations,” one former employee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s, ‘Hey, look at this shiny thing, please don’t pay attention to this mushroom cloud.’”

Clear History was marred by a number of delays, with Facebook telling Recode last December that “it’s taking longer than we initially thought” due to issues with how data is stored and processed. Facebook engineers re-built the way the browsing data is indexed in order to allow users to disconnect their browsing history and opt out of personalized tracking moving forward, a spokesperson said.

The company has moved away from the Clear History name, noting that the feature is just one of three main tools in Off-Facebook Activity. A spokesperson would not say how many accounts Facebook expects to use the feature, but did confirm that it may have an impact on the company’s bottom line as it will affect how ads will be targeted in the future.

When asked about Clear History in March in an interview with CNBC, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said “our bottom line is getting this right” while implying the change in ad targeting may slow growth rate.

“But we believe deeply that doing the right thing for people on our service is the only way to protect our long-term business,” she said. “And it is the right thing to do.”

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