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Here's How Facebook Is Tracking Your Internet Activity

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Samantha Felix|Sep. 9, 2012

Mark Zuckerberg is watching you.

Facebook really is watching your every move online. 

In testing out the new Abine DNT+ tool, we noticed that Facebook has more than 200 “trackers” watching our internet activity.

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.

Cookies are tiny bits of software that web pages drop onto your device that identify you anonymously but nonetheless signal useful behavior about your background interests to advertisers who might want to target you.

Critics call this spying. Advertisers call it targeting.

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. With a slightly harsh tone, 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.

There is certainly truth to this statement, not all cookies are used for tracking. Many are simply placed in order to keep 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 noted they could not comment because the requests do not mean a whole lot unless you can see exactly what they are and how they are used. Facebook’s entire site is run off of JavaScript and other such tags that have an array of purposes.

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 in 8 trackers. So, now Facebook had 236 trackers on my browsing activity.

Downey explained why this happens: when you visit BusinessInsider, 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’

Daniel Goodman / Business Insider

Admittedly one of my favorite 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


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    Total 8 comments
    • Wulfrano Ruiz Sainz

      I never realized I was that important. :roll:

    • Anti-Zion

      I would not argue with the 200 but you are going about this in the wrong way!

      Google is the big one but just editing your host file or trying to block Google won’t work because they have 1500 plus domain names registered to them and even use private IP-Address if they get stuck.

      No my friends don’t block these spy requests but corrupt the data you send HTTP requests back to them so they get lots of cookies they did not hand out and get the referer string to point to pages that don’t exist

      switch your user agent on the fly and even the language codes from en-US to en-CA

      Corrupted data is worthless and you can even go so far as editing google ga.js that uses a checksum on the data it sends to Google so that your javascript version is changed to version 99.2 and your screen size is sent back as 800 X 600

      Google will go to any lengths to trick people and you might like to know that so called anonymous search engine has Google all over it.


      Take the fight back to the enemy

    • truther357

      Sure the ‘left-ing-nuts!” at Obama and Soros, Huffington Post-Aol are going to be tracking you ,too.
      This is what insecure,’ dictator wannabe’ liars, do!
      Wake UP…People!
      You need to stop supporting and financing the ‘corrupt’ organization’s behind these criminal’s “Anti-American Revolution!”
      Starting with Hollywood!
      Instead of Google,MSM,Yahoo….I use as my homepage and search engine…and love it.
      and use SuperAntiSpyware-Professional ..that tracks and destroy’s ‘TRACKER’S’

    • Anonymous

      What’s Fartbook?

    • Ozzie_Thinker

      There are alternative browsers and operating systems that are much harder to track. Two issues with the article:

      1) why bother colating all this useless data and how many [millions] will analyse it effectively. O.k. yes there has been an attempt to limit the use of the internet, but “security” is largely a scaremongering tactic and the limitation has only been on what can be accessed.

      2) The internet is annonymous thanks to hackers, who can “violate” any account. Many services allow the purchase of air time without ID and with cash payment. Added to that if an ID or electronic method of payment had been used there is no guarantee the surfer is the ID holder or even linked to the ID holder. Therefore even if the facebook details matched the ID holder attached to the specific internet browser used for remote surfing, Zuckerface ain’t got nuttin’!!!!

    • AnonyMoose

      I’ve actually found that Ghostery plugin for Firefox blocks more than Do Not Track Plus…

    • faro0485

      I also use Peerblock.

      The only problem comes about when a site uses facebook.

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