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Facebook free to track every aspect of your online lives – judge says so Featured

A US district judge in San Jose, California, has thrown out a lawsuit that sought to hold Facebook accountable for tracking users after they had logged out of Facebook.

Judge Edward Davila said that the individuals suing Facebook had failed to show a reasonable expectation of privacy and any meaningful economic damage from Facebook’s actions – in reality tacitly agreeing to Facebook tracking its users, no matter what they’re doing on the Internet.

The bad news for those who want privacy on the Internet came in a Reuters report and has sparked a flurry of commentary and speculation on what this means. The bottom line is that it opens the way for any company to track your movements online and puts the onus on the user to take precautions if they wish to protect their privacy – a kind of caveat emptor.

Davila said that plaintiffs could have taken steps to keep their browsing histories private, for example by using the Digital Advertising Alliance’s opt-out tool or using “incognito mode”, and failed to show that Facebook illegally “intercepted” or eavesdropped on their communications.

The core issue is that Facebook installs cookies on users’ browsers, which track data whenever the user is on an external website that has Facebook’s “Like” button embedded.

Seeing as most every website is bound to the massive traffic-driver that is Facebook, this effectively tracks Facebook users’ Web activity.

The DAA opt-out tool is interesting – it revealed 133 companies had tracked my use by placing cookies on my system, mostly without permission (or passive permission – “By proceeding you agree”). It can then place opt-out requests to these companies although all it appears all this does is block cookies on your browser – not universally on every device you use.

Interestingly I use Firefox and Ghostery for normal browsing and the latter went crazy on this site finding 27 of the 133 companies had bypassed Ghostery somehow – and reported that 106 of the companies had failed to respond to my opt-out request. Did I want to try again?

But then the fun started – in a few hours of browsing so many sites appeared broken or links were not working that I had to use a virgin copy of MS Edge to open many of them! I guess Judge Davila is not a frequent Web surfer.

According to the Guardian, Facebook is pleased with the ruling. You bet it is, as it could have been the end of creepy, unwelcome, highly targeted advertising which is the sole reason Facebook exists – to use your personal information against you. Google's “do no evil” has nothing on Facebook.

This is a chilling decision, legitimising data collection on an extreme scale.

  1. Stop using the drug of choice – Facebook and remove every vestige of your existence
  2. Never click a third party social media sharing button (like, dislike etc)
  3. Never use Facebook, Twitter, etc to sign into other supposedly unconnected site (single sign on)
  4. Sign out of Google Web Mail and browser logins before browsing
  5. Pay attention to privacy policies and use the option to check and modify them
  6. Run AdBlock Plus, Ghostery, DoNotTrackMe, Priv3 or similar
  7. Use in private browsing mode
  8. Use a VPN

The tragedy is that advertising companies, Facebook included, are working on ways to get around using cookies. Device fingerprinting developed for fraud detection (mac address, IP address, processor ID etc) and Canvas fingerprinting of the HTML 5 canvas element are being trialled as alternative and totally passive trackers. Wikipedia has an interesting and unbiased article on Internet privacy here

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

 

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