Facebook Tracking Increases Even as Safe Harbor Case Reaches ECJ

The end of September was abuzz with news of more Facebook data privacy threats, and even a rumor on the site itself that the company is going to kill all privacy protections. Although the rumor is just a rumor, it is not surprising that people would believe it. Facebook has been involved in a lot of anti-privacy activities, and now the company is going to launch browser tracking, making the site even more of a privacy nightmare than it already is. And the Safe Habor Agreement which was instituted to guard privacy does not provide much protection. This is really bad news for online privacy. But Facebook is not going to so boldly defy privacy that it removes all elements of it from its social media network. Facebook users simply need to be that much more careful about what they allow the site to see. On the positive side, the company is actually moving to implement more encryption, although the standards that they have employed so far are known to be vulnerable to NSA intrusion.

Facebook is not a safe site, especially where privacy is concerned. Many who are keen on privacy have left the site over the past few years due to the invasive nature of the social network. Moreover, Facebook links up with a lot of sites through their like and share buttons, which provides the company with a ton of additional data from these third party sites. This issue was addressed by privacy groups five years ago, but Facebook paid no mind to the cries for more respect of people’s privacy. Last year CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that this third party data would be used in the future to make Facebook’s targeted advertising better. And that future is now.

Browser Tracking for Targeted Advertising

Facebook wants to expand its reach even further with their browser tracking program. This means that anytime a person – whether or not they even use Facebook! – visits a site that has a share or like button, the page visit with all its details will be noted by Facebook. It doesn’t matter whether or not you use the buttons, the data about your visit will be recorded anyway. The buttons are not just links to Facebook but also trackers that command the browser you are using to send cookies that contain personally identifiable information. Zuckerberg said that all this data will be used to improve the relevance of the ads that they show to users. But we already know that there is much more that can and probably will be done with this data. All Facebook users have already agreed to everything that the site does just by using it, so no one can expect the company to ask for any permission to use the data for specific activities or endeavors. But that is their choice. With this new browser tracking program, even those who reject Facebook and all its policies can have their privacy violated just by visiting one of millions of other websites that happen to use these Facebook buttons.

Still not worried about Facebook tracking? Maybe you need to look into what all that data can say about you, and who can learn these things. When you like and share things on and off Facebook, this information is not limited to those that you choose to reveal it to. Yes, there are privacy settings on the site that let you say who can see what. But after that, Facebook can take all that information about what you are into, run it through their algorithms, and send it off to marketers, who then share it with other companies that sell products and services. It’s not public, but a heck of a lot of other people who are not your friends have access to collated and categorized data about your personal preferences. You are profiled and targeted to receive ads at the very least.

Think you are safe because you use an add blocker? Facebook may still know a lot more about what you like to browse than you realize. And don’t be fooled by the announcement that you can opt out of this tracking via the AdChoice website. The Digital Advertising Alliance is doing its best to help Internet users reject online tracking, but this only works if the website that uses the cookies agrees to respect users’ choices. Out of millions of sites that now have Facebook like and share buttons, only about a hundred companies allow users to opt out. Besides, the tracking still happens, the data is just not sent to certain companies. The data is still there, and these sites may say that they will not use it, but as long as it is there, it is a violation of privacy. And Facebook still maintains that what they are doing is not invasive tracking.

No Safe Habor

The Safe Habor Agreement only applies to European citizens, and the US does not have any counterpart to this data protection law. But the way that this has been handled in relation to Facebook privacy shows us a lot about what these online companies can get away with. Safe Habor is a specific agreement under the European Union Data Protection Directive that says that US companies cannot indiscriminately collect EU user data. Facebook clearly violated this 5-year old agreement as proven by the leaked NSA documents that Edward Snowden released to the Guardian. The 2012 case filed against Facebook in Ireland went nowhere until the High Court of Ireland passed it on to the European Court of Justice last year. Without the tenacity of Austrian student Max Schrems, responsible for the original filing, the whole thing would have been swept under the rug by members of the judiciary who sorely lack understanding of how badly online companies have been abusing our privacy.

The Safe Habor Agreement may not be worded well enough to technically protect EU citizens, but this does not mean that no violation occurred. Companies like Facebook have been playing the technicalities all along, and they need to be made to face the music whether or not they have found legal loopholes to skitter around on. Facebook and their ilk have no fear of abusing Internet users because of all the ways that they can avoid the law – and common decency for that matter.

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