Facebook’s New Tool Offers Transparency on Data Sharing

Facebook has long collected information about its users’ browsing behavior, even when they weren’t using its platform. Now, it’s introduced a tool, Off-Facebook Activity, that lets users see and control the information gathered outside of the social network. The tool gives users a summary of the third-party websites and apps that share data with Facebook. The company noted that people generally have 80+ apps on their phones and use about half of them per month, making it difficult to track the data’s use.

The New York Times reports that “the new tool is Facebook’s latest response to criticism over how it safeguards users’ privacy.” Amid Facebook’s privacy scandals, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg vowed to “develop a technological solution that would give people the ability to clear their browsing histories.”

The company proposed an option to let users delete “the entire repository of data that the company collected,” but said its research showed this wasn’t what people wanted. Users preferred to have “better visibility into which sites were providing browsing-habit data to the company, and for more control over how the information was shared.”

Facebook will retain browsing history on its own platforms, including Instagram and Messenger. But, by allowing users to erase their browsing history outside of Facebook, the company “is taking a risk because of its partial dependence on such information for targeting ads at users.”

“If this were widely adopted, it would mean less overall revenue for Facebook,” said David Baser, a Facebook director of product management. “And that’s O.K.” Besides having a detailed record of its browsing history, users can also “use the tool to disconnect the historical browsing data from their accounts entirely, or to remove data from individual sites and apps … [as well as] turn off data-sharing from all sites and apps off Facebook in the future.” The tool will debut gradually, starting on Tuesday in Ireland, South Korea and Spain.

Wired reports that “even if you turn off Facebook’s ability to use your browsing history for ads, Facebook will still collect that information, and it will still be connected to your account for up to two days.”

More specifically, in a post, the company writes that, during that 48-hour period, “it may be used for measurement purposes and to make improvements to our ads systems.” Facebook director of policy communications Jay Nancarrow said that users will be notified of this “when they access the ‘Manage Future Activity’ portion of the tool in their settings … [and that it] was [also] included in an engineering blog post Facebook published Monday explaining how Off-Facebook Activity was built.”

After 48 hours, “the Off-Facebook Activity controls won’t actually delete your browsing data from Facebook’s servers … [but] merely decouples the information from your personal profile.” The data will continue to appear in “aggregated contexts,” to provide reports to advertisers on the effectiveness of their campaigns.