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Facebook increases its tracking reach, users have little choice in matter

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This article was originally published on eff.org on 2 October 2014.

Update from EFF (10/2/14): Facebook requested and we agreed to add that many of the problems we list in our post are industry-wide issues, from collection of users' browsing habits, to the collection of consumer purchase information for "conversion tracking," to offering an "opt out" that does not protect consumers against the collection and retention of data. We encourage Facebook to join companies like Pinterest, Twitter, and Medium in stopping collection of data from users' browsing habits when Do Not Track is enabled.

Facebook expanded its ever-growing advertising and tracking reach this week with new integration between the giant social network and Atlas, an advertising platform it purchased from Microsoft. The company now lets advertisers target you across all of your devices and on participating websites, based on characteristics from your Facebook profile such as age, gender, and location. It will also attempt to track the products you buy both online and off, in order to measure the ads' effects on our purchases.

As a user, the industry offers you no simple options to protect yourself against this intrusive data collection, whether for advertising purposes or not, most particularly because Atlas and Facebook do not currently respect Do Not Track. When you enable Do Not Track in your browser, it sends a clear signal to sites that you don't want your browsing habits to be collected; it's up to companies to heed this request. But with the data it gets from "Like" buttons on sites across the Web and through these new forms of ad tracking, Facebook knows what its users are doing all of the time. And if the company sees users enable Do Not Track but continues its Web-wide collection of their reading habits, it is clearly doing so without their consent.

Atlas uses the advertising industry's phony definition of "opt out," which has the unfortunate characteristic of meaning "pretend not to track" and offers no privacy benefits whatsoever. While you may think you are opting out of a large data collection scheme by, as Atlas expects you to do, accepting an opt-out cookie, the platform will merely stop serving you targeted ads. The advertising industry's "opt out" does not require companies to stop collecting data about you or your reading habits across the Web.

Opting users out of targeted ads while still collecting information about them is the worst of both worlds: it destroys all the potential usefulness of advertisements and simultaneously reduces the transparency of data collection practices to consumers. If anything, targeted ads at least let users know their information has been collected in the first place.

EFF calls upon Facebook to start honoring user requests to opt out from their third-party tracking, both across the Web and on mobile devices. We are also working on a new proposal called dnt-policy.txt for a simple way that sites can commit to respecting their users' privacy. This mechanism will allow tools like Privacy Badger, Disconnect, and other privacy protection software to know (and act upon) the difference between advertisers who respect the principle of consent to tracking, and those that don't.

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