Facebook follows you around online even after you log out. Here’s why you should care and what you can do.

I hate Facebook. The company would make a lot more money if privacy were to disappear completely. It is doing all it can to hasten the arrival of that day by pushing users down a slippery slope, encouraging them to tell more things, even inadvertently, to an ever expanding group of people, including many strangers. It wants us to stop caring who knows what. But realizing that we mostly do care, Facebook does sneaky things to their policies with little warning and with no easy ways to opt out.

In an article entitled, “Facebook Suggests Sharing Everything All the Time,” The Register describes the company’s latest innovation:

Mark Zuckerberg says new features on Facebook will allow the sharing of everything automatically and give people access to your entire life history.

Speaking at the keynote of the F8 developers conference in San Francisco Zuckerberg said that applications will become more social – a polite way of saying they’re posting everything you do on Facebook. Pop-up windows asking you to share something are a thing of the past, Zuck promised, since the application can be configured to do this automatically with the updated Open Graph tool.

Won’t that be nice?

It’s long been obvious to people who understand how internet browsers work that logging into Facebook and telling it to “remember” you is an awful idea. That means that every website you visit gets shared with Zuckerburg’s company and a host of advertisers, who know you by name, address, and email. Each time you “like” a particular page while logged into Facebook, it knows it’s you and records that information. Same with ads clicked. Same with companies whose Facebook “apps” you use. That’s why cautious people who use Facebook manually log out of FB before doing the day’s browsing.

With recent changes described here, even this cautious step will no longer be sufficient to blindfold Facebook’s prying eyes:

Dave Winer wrote a timely piece this morning about how Facebook is scaring him since the new API allows applications to post status items to your Facebook timeline without a users intervention. It is an extension of Facebook Instant and they call it frictionless sharing. The privacy concern here is that because you no longer have to explicitly opt-in to share an item, you may accidentally share a page or an event that you did not intend others to see.

The advice is to log out of Facebook. But logging out of Facebook only de-authorizes your browser from the web application. [A] number of cookies (including your account number) are still sent along to all requests to facebook.com. Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit. The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions.

(See also here.)

I rarely go to Facebook for any reason. I visit my very skimpy page about once per quarter, if that. I long ago downloaded the Safari browser, which I use for Facebook and nothing else. I have never logged into Facebook using Internet Explorer or Firefox. I never will. While I cannot be sure that this locks the company out of my life, I think it does. And it’s the best that I can do.

If you are one of those odd sorts who do not believe that privacy is worth having, then let me list some reasons why I feel otherwise:

  1. Senator Joe McCarthy’s efforts to ostracize Americans whose politics he viewed as extreme occurred has been much discussed in my lifetime. It was not until he had been long dead that most of us figured out that it was he who was the real extremist. The current political landscape contains several politicians who strike me as every bit as vile and misguided as McCarthy. And governmental security apparatus is profoundly more powerful now.
  2. Preserving privacy can be essential to personal safety, something gay people of a certain age understood particularly well. While that’s not as important for us as it once was, it was only last week that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ended. Those who have ambitious travel plans should also know that open homosexuals are not safe in certain countries. I’ve used sexual orientation as an example, but the same rationale applies to personal politics and religion.
  3. Information has a long (infinite) life in our current world. It is being acquired, bought, and sold without our knowledge. The U.S. has few laws protecting privacy or permitting you to know what information is being recorded online and shared.
  4. Social media activity and postings constitute discoverable information in lawsuits, including bankruptcy proceedings and divorce proceedings.
  5. Health information — such as medical conditions or pharmaceuticals you’ve researched online (in my case on behalf of clients who’ve hired me to represent them in Federal court) — have the potential to affect employability and insurability in certain cases.
  6. Political dissent on issues of public concern is more vigorous and effective if it is unvarnished. Privacy protections permit people to speak or write more freely. If you doubt that, consider that some of the most important political essays ever written — including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Federalist Papers — were first published anonymously, something that is difficult (perhaps impossible) to do today.

UPDATE:  If this issue — including technical details — is of interest to you, this blog post by Nik Cubrilov is worth your careful attention.  Don’t overlook the comments at the bottom, including a mea culpa of sorts from Gregg Stefancik, who says he’s a Facebook software engineer. 

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About Guy N. Texas

Guy N. Texas is the pen name of a lawyer living in Dallas, who is now a liberal. He was once conservative, but this word has so morphed in meaning that he can no longer call himself that in good conscience. Guy has no political aspirations. He speaks only for himself.
This entry was posted in Facebook, News, Privacy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Facebook follows you around online even after you log out. Here’s why you should care and what you can do.

  1. I share your wariness of Facebook and idea of a dedicated browser is a great idea. But I end up using Facebook quite a bit, and often from my iPhone, so I guess I’m deciding to give up some privacy for the use. I try to pay attention and I enable every security measure I can, but realize it could be all for naught.

    The specific question I have here is from your quote: “the new API allows applications to post status items to your Facebook timeline without a users intervention.” I think the worse anti-privacy parts of Facebook are all through applications. I have zero FB applications and I never will. The new API presumably means Timeline and as long as you can opt-out of it, then the worst is avoidable.

    PS I commented on your sane, reasonable page and would be happy to get a reply.

  2. vance wittie says:

    By the way, since we are much of an age, I can safely tell you that Senator McCarthy was already pushing daisies before your lifetime commenced.

  3. Guy N. Texas says:

    You’re as old as you feel, young Wittie.

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