Facebook’s new tool paints a grim privacy picture

Privacy is not just dead, it might never have really existed.

This is the feeling you get after logging into Facebook's new horrifying data feature.

It's called 'Off-Facebook Activity', and appeared in the Settings menus of Australian Facebook profiles earlier this week. It demonstrates and justifies almost every fear you may have ever had about the misuse of your personal information.

Each item in its menu seems to open a new window into the ways you've been monitored, tracked, catalogued, categorised, manipulated out of disposable income, and sold to brands. I don't know whether I should be grateful for the new transparency, irate over years of clandestine data collection, or distraught that this could happen to two billion people with pretty much zero governmental protection. Perhaps we could settle for a mix of all three.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says the company first tested the scheme in Ireland, South Korea and Spain, and has since decided to roll it out worldwide to deliver "stronger privacy protections for everyone on Facebook".

"We know we have a lot of work to do here, which is why this is such a priority for our teams and for me personally," Zuckerberg wrote in a recent blog post.

As ever, the press release is significantly more palatable than the reality.

This new tool lists companies which have "shared your activity" with Facebook; passing on your everyday web activity to an omnipotent tech giant as casually as you might pass someone a crisp from a family pack.

These are companies which use the invisible Facebook website 'pixel' that tracks your every action and is the reason why, if you spend five minutes searching the web for Tokyo holiday options, your Facebook feed starts turning Japanese.

I live and work on the Worldwide Web so as you'd perhaps expect, my list of corporate stalkers was incredibly, disturbingly long. More than 700 apps and websites have been leaking my moves to Facebook, including many I didn't realise I'd visited and some I thought knew better. It's much, much, much more information than I ever intended to share with a company known for influencing elections and, as it points out, "we receive more details and activity than what appears here".

Some of the eye-opening entries in my list included a random block puzzle that has told Facebook each and every time I've opened it (176 times but never again), and a food-logging app I've never connected to any social media outlet.

A Maroubra-based AFL club dropped my details to Facebook 17 times despite my complete lack of interest or knowledge of the sport, and apparently my ears have also been burning courtesy of a Filipino fashion firm (no idea), a Thai marketing company (never been there), and a US TV talent agency (flattered but no thanks).

Even American Express chatted to Facebook about me twice, presumably about the ethics of charging diet cola to a corporate credit card.

Facebook amassed this massive database of information about me even though I had logged out of the social network on most machines, turned off Facebook's 'platform,' asked it not to 'personalise' my ads, disabled location-sharing, deleted my contacts list, and locked down my content to 'friends only'.

 

So if it can still happen to me after all of that, it's probably happening to you too.

Just below this new tool you can give yourself even more chills by selecting 'Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information'.

There I found 114 businesses which had shared my email address or phone number with Facebook - a phone number I have steadfastly refused to confirm for the network despite near constant badgering.

You can also see details of what Facebook considers to be your interests, what advertising category you fall into (Established Adult Life sounds like an insult), and every video you've paused to watch on its site.

If there is one good thing about this new tool, it's that Facebook promises you can turn this tracking off … kind of.

It says that your old 'Off-Facebook Activity' can be cleared from its servers and even disabled, but it will show you six warnings, threats and provisos if you try to do this.

Facebook will still collect your information if you disable this option but it pinky-promises to 'disconnect' it from your account. You will also be unable to use any service that requires a Facebook login (which should be seen as a blessing).

Privacy experts, governments, and users all asked for greater transparency. And to their credit, Facebook has delivered some of it with this tool. But rather than solving issues, it feels like it's lifting the corner of a very extensive file that Facebook holds on all of us.

Online privacy has long been an illusion. I dare you to try this feature and not feel the same way.

Jennifer Dudley Nicholson is the national technology editor.


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