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This Is How Facebook Is Tracking Your Internet Activity

Mark Zuckerberg eyesMark Zuckerberg is watching you.

Facebook really is watching your every move online.In testing out a new diagnostic tool called Abine DNT+, we noticed that Facebook has more than 200 “trackers” watching our internet activity.

Skip directly to see our findings >
Abine defines trackers as “a request that a webpage tries to make your browser perform that will share information intended to record, profile, or share your online activity.” The trackers come in the shape of cookies, Javascript, 1-pixel beacons, and Iframes.

For example, cookies are tiny bits of software that web pages drop onto your device that identify you anonymously but nonetheless signal useful behaviour about your background interests to advertisers who might want to target you. Facebook uses these types of cookies to activate the “like” buttons on other websites.

Critics call this spying. Advertisers call it targeting. That’s how advertisers use Facebook to figure out when you’re pregnant.

In an email to Business Insider, Abine privacy analyst Sarah Downey explained why users should pay more attention to trackers, and block them:

In addition to invading your privacy, these tracking requests can consume large amounts of data.  And transferring lots of data takes time. Generally, the more tracking requests on a website, the slower that website loads. That’s why DNT+ gets you surfing at 125% of the normal speed and with 90% of the bandwidth, compared to a browser without DNT+ running.

Equipped with this insight, an inquisitive Facebook user might be wondering why they wouldn’t block all trackers and cookies alike. The Facebook page cautions:

Technologies like cookies, pixel tags (“pixels”), and local storage are used to deliver, secure, and understand products, services, and ads, on and off Facebook. Your browser or device may allow you to block these technologies, but you may not be able to use some features on Facebook if you block them.

Not all cookies are used for tracking or for other purposes, such as those used for Facebook’s “like” button. Many are simply placed in order to store information for later use. But it is the broader scope of “requests” that present the larger issue. In simple terms, Downey explained that when you navigate to a website, your browser constructs that site by communicating back and forth with the server where the site information is stored. These communications are the “requests.”  

But it isn’t just the website you are visiting that makes requests for information: online trackers from other companies hidden on the site do it, too. They act as third parties on your computer: you can’t see them without privacy software, you probably wouldn’t expect them to be present, and you probably don’t intend to share your information with them.

They request information like your geographic location, which other sites you’ve visited, what you click, and your Facebook username.

In terms of what the “requests” represent, Facebook declined to comment because, in the company’s opinion, the requests do not mean much unless you can see exactly what they are and how they are being used. Facebook’s entire site is run off of JavaScript and other such tags that have an array of purposes other than tracking.

So, we set out to see just how much Facebook is watching our internet browsing activity. Using the Abine software, we tracked to what extent Facebook trackers increased for each new click. We started by cleaning out the browser cache and search history, and then went about using the browser like it was the start of a typical work day …

It started off as just a normal day...

The first thing I do when I sit down at my computer in the morning is open up Facebook. Just by logging in, I could see that Facebook had 228 trackers watching my web activity.

So when DNT+ says it's blocked Facebook from tracking you 200 times, that means it's blocked 200 requests from Facebook that attempt to use the information in the request to collect information about you. Those 200 requests could have been a mix of Javascript, iframes, images, and cookies, and they could have spawned even more requests.

Note: we ran the test on various browsers, and two different machines to ensure the results were consistent.

Opening up Business Insider on a new tab.

By opening Business Insider and posting a story on Facebook there was an increase of 8 trackers. So, now Facebook had 236 trackers on my browsing activity.

Downey explained why this happens: When you visit Business Insider, and there's a Facebook button on the page, Facebook will send a request, that request comes back from Facebook with a button, which contains Javascript code that allows tracking. That piece of code then allows third parties (Facebook in this case) to run code on your machine. That code can write cookies and even make more tracking requests.

Then I opened up Bloomingdale's.com

Admittedly one of my favourite sites, I am sure to check it daily -- and, surprisingly there was no uptick in Facebook trackers.

Moving on, I clicked on a Huffington Post article in my Facebook feed.

By clicking through to the Huffington Post Facebook page, then to the article itself, and then spending a bit of time on the Huffington Post site, my Facebook trackers went up to 244.

Next, on to trade news.

Moving on from Huffington Post, it was time to see what is happening in the ad world. By spending just five minutes on the Adweek site, and looking at a couple of articles, one of which then linked out to a New York Times article, my trackers shot up by 20! I now had a total of 266 Facebook trackers.

Time to check out Twitter.

When I opened Twitter and reviewed my feed, there was no change in my Facebook trackers. When I clicked on a tweet by Wired, however, and linked to the article - boom - the trackers increased to a total of 272 Facebook trackers.

Made a quick stop on Business Insider, and then checked my gmail.

This quick stop added six more trackers to my count, while responding to an email and gchatting for a second added zero trackers.

Facebook reads your emails!

Well, not exactly, when I opened an email with a link and clicked the link, Facebook added 4 more trackers.

Lastly, it was time to check LinkedIn.

There was no change in trackers when I logged into LinkedIn, but as I browsed the feed, and clicked through to a few articles, my trackers quickly jumped up by 20. So, by the time I finally made it back to Business Insider's homepage, Facebook had 308 trackers following my internet activity.

So I logged out of Facebook.

When I logged out of Facebook, I couldn't see the exact number of trackers out there, but I did notice that no matter where I went, Abine showed that Facebook Connect was everywhere I was.

What does this all mean?

Well, other than Facebook is everywhere, the Facebook trackers have fairly specific interests. According to our experiment, Facebook is most interested in these three things:

1. What you are reading on the web.

2. What you are linking to from social media sites.

3. What you are buying.

Curious how else you are being tracked online?

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