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Spying or Marketing? Facebook’s Internet Trackers

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In September of 2012, Business Insider contributor Samantha Felix took part in a small experiment. She downloaded free privacy software Abine DNT+ to determine how many times social media giant Facebook used trackers to access her Internet activity.

The results indicate Facebook is everywhere. Simply logging on to Felix’s Facebook account generated 288 tracking requests. By the time she visited a handful of websites, all of which she used daily, the number increased to 308. Facebook “Like” buttons allow you to post a website to your profile page, but they also double as trackers, potentially recording your browsing history.

Types of Trackers

Tracking technology includes cookies, pixel tags, JavaScript and Iframes. Cookies are by far the most common. In order to quickly load information into your browser, many websites store little particles of data called cookies on your computer.

Cookies can be helpful. If you’ve every loaded up an ecommerce shopping cart and returned to the site to find the items still in your cart, that’s because the site uses cookies. Most trackers have other capabilities: JavaScript, for instance, plays an important role in website construction.

Trackers and Marketing

Whether trackers are helpful tools or wicked, viewing them as insidious privacy violators depends on which side of the marketing fence you’re on. Marketers say trackers help them offer targeted marketing to interested consumers. If you surfed to Morningside Legal Translation and other translation services, for instance, you might notice a sharp increase in banner ads offering translation software.

This doesn’t mean the tracker was on the translation sites you visited (Facebook doesn’t have trackers on the Morningside website). The tracker might lurk an unrelated site waiting to request records of your online activity. If you’ve ever wondered how banner ads seem to intuitively grasp your consumer needs, wonder no more: it’s all about the trackers.

Tracking and Privacy

The same technology marketers praise for offering targeted ads gives privacy advocates Orwellian seizures. After all, trackers operate under most people’s radar: even websites with third-party trackers installed may not understand all the implications: that Like button simply looks like a means to generate more traffic to a site.

You can find reference to Facebook’s trackers in its policies, although of course the site doesn’t call them trackers. Facebook points out that it uses “cookies, pixel tags (“pixels”), and local storage” to deliver services and ads. It also notes that you can block these technologies with your browser, but doing so may make some features on Facebook unusable.

Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to decide if they want trackers following them online. After all, the technology is well-established and unlikely to go away anytime soon. Google Ads also uses trackers, which is why, once again, you may see ads for translation software after visiting Morningside legal translation or similar sites.

Personally, I’m a rather private person, so I installed Abine DNT+. Then I went back to Felix’s Business Insider article. As soon as I landed on the page, Abine blocked 18 trackers. Make of that what you will.

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