Facebook Offering Tool to Give Users Some Control of Their Data

Facebook has announced a new tool that they will be rolling out in the next few months. It will allow people to take more control of what data is collected on them outside of Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp. Called Off-Facebook Activity, the new tool will allow people to see a summary of any information other apps have sent to Facebook, disconnect that information from their account, and choose to disconnect all or specific off-Facebook activity from their account. The tool is being released in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain first, with other locations to follow.

Facebook built its empire on collecting and selling user data to advertisers. Their system for doing that has been notoriously secretive and has allowed them to grow to 2.7 billion people who use at least one of their services per month. They’re also exceptionally profitable, with $40 billion in revenue in 2017, approximately 89 percent of which came from digital advertisements. By collecting all the data they possibly could — both on their platforms and off — Facebook has become one of the most powerful and profitable companies in the world.

Here’s how Facebook collects data off of their own networks. They’ve essentially created a host of tools that developers of other products can use, including “like” and “share” buttons that allow people to share outside content on the network; Facebook login, which lets people use their Facebook login info to sign in to other products; Facebook Analytics, which websites and app can use analyze how people use their services; and Facebook ads and measurement tools, which is basically the interface between other products and Facebook to help them all see how they can do use ads.

All of those tools collect data on people, regardless of whether or not they’re a Facebook user and whether or not they’re logged out. And all of that data is used by Facebook to sell and target ad spaces. But Facebook is quick to point out that they’re not the only big tech company doing this.

“Many companies offer these types of services and, like Facebook, they also get information from the apps and sites that use them,” Facebook wrote in a blog post about the topic. “Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn all have similar Like and Share buttons to help people share things on their services. Google has a popular analytics service. And Amazon, Google and Twitter all offer login features. These companies — and many others — also offer advertising services. In fact, most websites and apps send the same information to multiple companies each time you visit them.”

While it’s true that other tech companies do collect data on users in order to sell ads, Facebook is misdirecting a bit there. It’s undeniable that they have built the most extensive and most invasive data collection tool thus far.

Off-Facebook Activity, the social network is taking a small step away from that model — and it remains to be seen how much of an impact the move actually has. One big reason to doubt the impact of this tool is the fact that Off-Facebook Activity is opt-in — meaning users will have to conscientiously choose to go to the settings and make those changes. The reality is that most users won’t know about the new options at all, won’t care enough to do it, or don’t fully understand how much Facebook tracks and sells to them.

The second big reason is that, as Wired points out, turning off Off-Facebook Activity won’t protect users 100 percent from being tracked. In fact, that data will be stored, available, and potentially used for 48 hour before being deleted. The Facebook Help Center post on the topic reads:

“Your future off-Facebook activity will be disconnected within 48 hours from when it's received. During this time it may be used for measurement purposes and to make improvements to our ads systems.”

So, how much change is the social network really making?

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