Who is tracking you online? You assume your ISP and the government. Google tracks you everywhere online, and offline too if you carry an Android. But what about social media sites, like Facebook?
Facebook tracking is on par with Google. The social media giant receives multi-billion dollar fines for breaching privacy, tracking, and data sharing regulations in the US, European Union, and individual nations around the world.
Can you block Facebook tracking? Is it possible to stop Facebook tracking you around the internet? You can certainly try. Here’s how you stop Facebook tracking your online movements.
How Does Facebook Track You?
We’ve become a society intent on sharing… everything. How many times do you scroll through your Facebook feed and sigh at the information people are spewing forth? It goes further than that.
1. Facebook Like and Share Plug-In Tracking
The Facebook “Like” and “Share” buttons found on almost every website funnel data back into the Facebook advertising algorithm. The presence of the Facebook social share buttons means Facebook is hoovering up your data, regardless of whether you have an account or not. (What is a Facebook shadow profile, anyway?)
The European Union found that site owners could be held liable for transmitting private data to Facebook with obtaining the explicit consent of the users. The ruling doesn’t stop Facebook or other companies using social media plug-ins. However, it could force Facebook to offer users the chance to opt-out of tracking on websites outside of its control.
2. Facebook Pixel
The Facebook pixel “is an analytics tool that allows you to measure the effectiveness of your advertising by understanding the actions that people take on your website.” Sounds great, right? For a website owner, a Facebook pixel grants insight into how effective your advertising is. It does this by tracking the actions of the people using the site and feeding back to Facebook.
As with Facebook tracking via the Like and Share social plug-ins, the crux of the issue is whether Facebook provides enough information to users to make informed decisions regarding data tracking.
3. Facebook Cookies
Facebook places a cookie on your computer if you have a Facebook account. It also places a cookie on your computer if you use “Facebook Products, including our website or apps, or visit other websites and apps that use Facebook Products (including the Like button or other Facebook Technologies).”
Regardless of whether you have an account, if you even use a site using a Facebook Product, you receive a Facebook tracking cookie.
4. Facebook Tracking via Instagram and WhatsApp
Facebook owns several other major social sites and services. The largest of these are Instagram and WhatsApp, both giants in their own right. If you’re using Instagram, Facebook is tracking your data. The image-sharing social media platform is a Facebook Product with all the tracking and data privacy issues you can imagine.
WhatsApp, however, is a little different. Because WhatsApp is an encrypted messaging service. Therefore, Facebook cannot access the content of your messages and mine this data for advertising purposes. Still, Facebook can link your Facebook profile and WhatsApp accounts together to learn more about the friends you chat too.
What Does Facebook Know About You?
Facebook tracking serves a single purpose: advertising. Advertising remains the largest source of revenue for Facebook. That’s why collecting reams of data is essential for their business model, even after diversification into other areas of tech. After collecting your data for years, what does Facebook know about you?
For fun, let’s see what Facebook knows about me. Better still, let’s compare it to what it thought it knew about me in 2017. The following image displays my Facebook Ad preferences from 2017:
Now, my Facebook Ad preferences from 2019:
The jokes on them: I didn’t rate Call of Duty in 2017, and I’m still not a fan in 2019, either. Some changes, however, are more accurate. I do like board games, strategy games, and collectible card games. Nice to see my music taste has developed from just “Music” in 2017 into several different genres.
Regardless of what Facebook’s advertising preferences say about me, it perfectly illustrates the profile built to serve you advertising you will engage with, rather than a random spiel of useless ads.
You can see your Facebook Ad Preferences right here.
Facebook Tracks Users, Even Without an Account
I often hear people say they are free from Facebook tracking because they do not have an account. Well, the joke is on them (or us? All of us?!). One of the reasons Facebook’s advertising works so well is the immense amount of websites and services feeding data back to Facebook’s advertising arm. That includes data gathered using the methods laid out above.
When you visit one of these sites, regardless of your Facebook user status, Facebook receives an IP address, location, browser details, and more. And the best bit of all? Facebook tracking cookies never expire.
Why Is Facebook Tracking Me?
Advertising and money. At this point, most internet users understand that online tracking is de rigueur. Each link is another opportunity for Facebook or another advertising company to track us.
old person on Facebook: snapchat is tracking u now so the gov can spy on u!
same person:*checks in literally everywhere they go on Facebook*
— EJ Gomez (@EJGomez) July 12, 2017
Also, your data, regardless of user status, helps to increase the volume of advertising target data. It is a win-win for Facebook. Concise data that their business account holders can make better use of.
Facebook’s record on tracking and privacy is dire. In 2018, there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2019, the FTC fined Facebook $5 billion for failing to protect data from third-parties.
The EU fined Facebook $122 million for submitting misleading information about its WhatsApp takeover (they said they weren’t going to link data, then did exactly that). The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office fined Facebook the utterly laughable amount of £500,000 for breaching data privacy rules.
Tech giants like Facebook and Google are now so large that a $5 billion fine isn’t a deterrent. It is an operating cost, the price of doing business with your data.
Unfortunately, tracking and advertising are central to the modern internet. Have you ever tried running the privacy-focused browser extensions NoScript or PrivacyBadger (more on these extensions in a moment)? Many sites break without the enormous number of advertising and tracking scripts embedded in their code.
How Do I Stop Facebook Tracking Me?
The big question, the one you want the answer to: how do you stop Facebook tracking your movements around the internet? Is it possible to stop Facebook tracking you? Can you block a Facebook pixel?
Thankfully, there are several great solutions and, better yet, many of them will stop other invasive tracking practices, too.
Some websites rely on scripts. In this case, the script is a small piece of code that calls advertising trackers to your presence on a page. You can block these scripts from running using a script blocking browser extension.
uBlock Origin is an excellent start. It features several built-in script-blocking lists and is easy to use too. Better still, it has dedicated scripts for Disconnect filters (Disconnect is another useful extension), as well as some that specifically take aim at social media trackers.
I would advise using uBlock Origin and whitelisting your favorite trusted sites—like MakeUseOf! It has blocked malvertising content on more than one occasion!
NoScript is highly recommended but can be a steep learning curve. Your internet that works everywhere might suddenly be completely broken because of the blocked scripts. So while your privacy will be excellent, you might struggle to book flights, or even watch a video without tweaking your script settings. In that sense, it is highly customizable.
Download: NoScript for Firefox (Free)
Privacy Badger is one of the next best things to NoScript. Where NoScript is for techies (but worth learning, I might add), you could install PrivacyBadger on your Grandma’s computer, knowing she’ll be protected and able to book flights.
PrivacyBadger uses an easy-to-manage system of colored sliders. Green means okay, Yellow means third-party tracking but necessary for a functioning web, Red means content and scripts have been disabled.
Use a Privacy-Focused Alternative Browser
If you are using Google’s Chrome browser, you are being tracked. But you don’t have to fear your browser tracking your online activity. There are several privacy-focused browser alternatives you can use to stop Facebook tracking.
Epic Privacy Browser protects you from “600+ tracking attempts in an average browsing session” and can see lower-quoted prices for flights and other services. It also has an integrated VPN with servers in eight countries.
Tor is free anonymity software that usually runs as part of a modified Mozilla Firefox browser. It is well known as the home of darknet markets, dissidents, and other nefarious services. However, you can use it to stop trackers and keep your network traffic anonymous.
Brave is a Chromium-based browser with a complete focus on privacy and security. It features an interesting approach to whitelisting: adding tiny micro-payments for your favorite publications.
Advertising Opt-Outs and Disabling Third-Party Cookies
Users can opt-out of behavioral advertising using a regional tool.
It can take a few tries to get each advertiser to accept your opt-out request. The EU site is especially slow!
Users should also disable third-party cookies in their browsers. You can disable third-party cookies via the Settings menu in your browser of choice. Stopping third-party cookies puts a halt on some advertising and behavioral tracking cookies making their way onto your system.
Here are five ways to check who is following you around the internet and some tips on how to block them, too.
You can use a browser extension to delete third-party cookies automatically after leaving the site (some sites won’t work without them). Cookie AutoDelete works for both Chrome and Firefox, and allows you to customize the cookies you delete after each session.
Should You Block Facebook Tracking?
Facebook tracking serves one purpose: Facebook advertising.
Stopping at least some online tracking is a good thing. Maintaining, and even enhancing your online privacy is incredibly important. The march of organizations like Facebook and Google exposes our private data more than ever.
Serial Facebook posters reveal phenomenal amounts of personal data. Facebook can use your data even if you adopt restrictive privacy settings. Even if you’re concerned about what you post, Facebook is adept at drawing from and correlating private data.
Security expert Bruce Schneier believes, “We tend to focus on the data collection because that’s easier to see. I think the real problem are the correlations, which are much harder to see.”
No, I do not want my period tracking app to connect to my facebook account, thank you very much indeed
— Martina Behm (@strickmich) February 11, 2016
You have options to help you block Facebook’s tracking. Taking the privacy and security of your Facebook account into your hands isn’t arduous. But it does require a little effort.
A great place to start is this walkthrough of Facebook’s new privacy settings. It’ll help you understand much more about how Facebook is using your data.
Image Credit: Sabphoto/Shutterstock