For years, my Facebook account has practically sat dormant. It’s a nostalgic relic of the past that lets me occasionally walk down the memory lane of my life’s first two decades. But it’s also a weak link in my digital privacy. I’ve known for years that Facebook is constantly watching, studying me as I wander through the web. Still, I never gathered up the courage to delete my account and burn it to the ground once and for all. Until last week, that is.
A few days ago, I found myself staring wide-eyed at the rundown of all the nearly 1,400 websites and apps that have gathered data on me and shared it with Facebook. I was looking at the Off-Facebook Activity tool, one of the recent additions to Facebook’s suite of security options for users that I had fortuitously stumbled upon. Moments later, my cursor was hovering over the Delete Account button.
Facebook knows a lot about you. After the countless controversies and privacy “bugs,” you probably already knew that. What most people are not familiar with, however, is the vast network of third parties that has enabled Facebook to invade nearly every app you use, and become the data superpower it is today.
Think of Facebook as a modern, advanced Rolodex hosting sophisticated profiles of billions of people. Each profile features hordes of intricate personal details about your behavior such as your interests, what do you like to shop, when do you shop, what devices do you own, and more.
But Facebook isn’t the only one responsible for maintaining this database. The social network’s trackers are engineered into hundreds of thousands of apps and websites. They all collect data and add to this digital profile of you. In return, these apps and websites are able to take advantage of Facebook’s business tools that help them understand you and serve you highly personalized experiences.
As its name suggests, the Off-Facebook Activity page lists down every app or website that has tracked you and shared the information with Facebook. The list offers a remarkable and nerve-wracking look inside how actively businesses monitor you online. You can also view how many of your “interactions” they recorded and see the last time their trackers watched you. An interaction can be anything from you adding an item to your shopping cart to clicking a link.
Plus, the off-Facebook Activity hub highlights the true extent of the lengths that ad companies like Facebook go to to keep tabs on you, and also how they can tap into even the most innocuous piece of data such as a device ID to identify you — regardless of whether you are signed into Facebook.
For instance, one of the apps in my off-Facebook activity is a workout app called Seven. I haven’t granted a single permission to Seven, but it knows what sort of exercises I do, and based on that, Facebook can show me health-related ads that suit my specific needs.
Similarly, LinkedIn, where I spent five minutes responding to a few pending messages last weekend, had somehow managed to log and share 200 such tiny pieces of information with Facebook.
On the off-Facebook Activity page itself, Facebook doesn’t reveal which specific interaction an app or website had filed. However, you have the option to find that out by downloading an archive of all your Facebook data. It’s available under the archive’s “ads and businesses” folder.
But soon, you will discover that most of these interactions are labeled “Custom” and there’s no way for you to actually figure out exactly what kind of data these third-party apps and websites are sharing with Facebook.
Custom events are developed by a business itself to cater to a specific action they may have on their website or app. Facebook suggests reaching out to the business itself if you’d like to learn more about them.
Fortunately, what Facebook lacks in transparency, it makes up for in control. Even though it’s near to impossible for you to extract what sort of information a given business is hoarding, the off-Facebook activity offers enough insights for you to know whether you’re comfortable with the intensity of its security practices. The off-Facebook activity has several options you can tune to opt out or restrain third-party data collection.
These options are present under Settings > Your Facebook Information > Off Facebook Activity. Here, you need to first click “Manage your off-Facebook activity” to browse your off-Facebook activities. When you select a specific app or website, Facebook will show how many interactions it has recorded, when it last received data from this business, and an option to prevent the business from sharing your information in the future.
Facebook says that when you opt out, it gets rid of the identifier (such as a device ID, email, or phone number) that lets it link the collected data with your personal profile. It will continue to receive the data anonymously, though.
Similarly, when you delete all your off-Facebook activity with the “Clear History” button at the top, Facebook retains the data but it’s no longer associated with you. For instance, once someone clears their history, the social network will know there was a visit to a shopping website but it won’t be able to tell who made that visit.
Also on the top, you will find a worrying note that warns: “Some of your activity may not appear here.” This, Facebook tells me, is the kind of data it has received from a third-party but can’t quite verify belongs to you.
What’s more, you can ask Facebook to quit associating third-party data with you entirely as well. This won’t have any significant impact on your Facebook experience itself. The ads simply won’t be tailored to your interests anymore. To do this, click Manage Future Activity and switch off the “Future off-Facebook activity” toggle.
Alternatively, if you are like me and downright shaken with this revelation, you can always nuke your Facebook account. That option is at Settings > Your Facebook Information > Deactivation and Deletion. Facebook promises it permanently removes your data after 30 days since you initiate the deletion process.
It’s worth noting that in its policy, it also mentions that “copies of your information may remain after the 90 days in backup storage that [Facebook] uses to recover in the event of a disaster, software error, or other data loss event. [Facebook] may also keep your information for things like legal issues, terms violations, or harm prevention efforts.”
You may never truly be able to escape Facebook, however. The chances are even after you bury your account, the social network will retain and update your “shadow profile.” If this happens, all you can do is try to block trackers on your phone and browser to ensure no app or website is still covertly feeding your data to Facebook.
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