Facebook is Tracking You Even if You Don't Have an Account

Facebook knows what you're up to online even if you don't have an account with the social networking service. Facebook users who're logged out of their account are tracked, as is anyone who visits a website that uses a Facebook social plug-in, and that may land the company in hot water because the practice runs afoul of European Union laws.

Facebook can track everyone online thanks to website plug-insFacebook can track everyone online thanks to website plug-ins

Facebook's tracking uses Web browser cookies to track online activity, and those cookies can be set regardless of whether or not you have a Facebook account thanks to the Like button plug-ins that appear on many sites. The company's extensive tracking shouldn't come as a big surprise considering its cavalier attitude towards privacy—and the fact that the Facebook data usage policy says as much:

We collect information when you visit or use third-party websites and apps that use our services. This includes information about the websites and apps you visit, your use of our services on those websites and apps, as well as information the developer or publisher of the app or website provides to you or us.

Facebook updated its published policies at the beginning of 2015 to make it clearer that our online activities are being tracked. This isn't so much of a change in what Facebook has been doing, but instead is more of a clarification.

In the United States, the revelation will no doubt raise concern with a percentage of Facebook's users, along with Internet users who have intentionally avoided the social network service. In the EU, however, the practice looks like a big problem thanks to online privacy laws.

Websites that fall under EU jurisdiction must give visitors an warning asking for consent to track their activities, and Facebook is sidestepping that requirement. The EU's Belgian Privacy Commission worked with iMinds-SMIT on an extensive analysis of Facebook's policies and determined they do violate European law.

The study found Facebook tracks Internet users without consent, tracks EU citizens even when they explicitly opt out, makes it too difficult for its own users to opt out by scattering privacy settings, and doesn't make it clear exactly how it repurposes information it collects when building targeted ads out of our photos and other online activities.

For Facebook, the data collection is essential because it's the basis for the advertising revenue it generates, and that extends beyond its own website into other apps, too.

"Facebook combines data from an increasingly wide variety of sources," the report states. "These sources include acquired companies, partnering platforms and websites or mobile applications that rely on Facebook (or one of its companies) for advertising or other services."

The report goes on to say that the company's ability to track our activities outside of Facebook "has increased exponentially" thanks to social plug-ins and mobile device tracking. In other words, if you surf the Web, Facebook is tracking you.

Facebook walks a fine line between complying with privacy laws and collecting as much information about us as it can. We are the product, and our personal information and online activity is what Facebook sells to advertisers. As long as that's the case, Facebook will be locked in an ongoing battle to push the envelope to gather as much data as it can.

[Some image elements courtesy Shutterstock]