59ºF

New ‘Off-Facebook Activity’ reveals how company tracks you all across the web

The Clear History button and other tools show how much data Facebook really collects -- and give you some control

Facebook tracks us even when we’re not on Facebook. Through relationships with hundreds of thousands of apps, websites, and other services, the company receives an all-but-constant stream of information about what most of us do online, and even where we go in the real world.

You may already have a sense of this. Consumer Reports and other outlets have reported on how invisible trackers such as the Facebook Pixel are scattered across the web, for instance. But a new set of Facebook settings can give you a much clearer view of which companies are sending in your data.

The tools also give you more power to do something about it.

The new settings are grouped in a menu called Off-Facebook Activity, and they reveal details about data sent to the company over the previous six months. You can “disconnect” that data from your account using a setting in the menu called Clear History. Then you can also prevent the company from linking such “off-Facebook” data with your account in the future.

“Everybody should adjust the Off-Facebook settings,” says Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of data security firm Disconnect. “If you clear your history and turn off future data sharing, these are meaningful ways to protect your privacy.”

Along the way, you’ll get a peek behind the data collection curtain.

“What Facebook gets out of all that is data that can be super valuable for targeting ads,” Oppenheim says. That lets marketers build ads that play on your interests and emotions.

Facebook first promised to give its users a meaningful way to put the brakes on that behavior almost two years ago in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was revealed that millions of users’ data had been illicitly used for political campaigns during the 2016 election. “It will be a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook -- what you’ve clicked on, websites you’ve visited, and so on,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in May 2018.

The setting finally started rolling out last year, but only to people in Ireland, Spain, and South Korea. This is the first time users in the U.S. have access, but despite those early promises, the controls aren’t exactly simple.

What Clear History doesn’t do

The Off-Facebook menu can let you see and do more with the data that keeps the social media advertising machine running, but it has limits.

When you “clear” your history, Facebook won’t actually delete anything, and there’s no way to stop the company from continuing to collect all the details about your online behavior that flow in from other apps and websites.

Instead, Facebook says it will use a complex system to keep the data separate from your account, which will prevent the company from using the information for targeted ads. But that doesn’t mean Facebook will stop monetizing all that personal data. Facebook will continue to use the information for purposes such as analytics reports for other websites and for providing detailed performance measurements for the company’s advertising clients.

“It’s better than nothing,” says Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. “It’s good that they’re providing some degree of transparency and control, but it should be designed to be more clear and accessible.”

The “Manage Future Activity” setting, which you’ll also find on the Off-Facebook Activity screen, essentially lets you keep your history cleared by default. After you toggle the slider to off (and close an intrusive warning screen that tries to get you to change your mind) companies will keep sending Facebook information about you. But the company says the data won’t be tied to your profile or used to target you with ads.

There’s a major caveat. Turning off that setting will disable the Facebook Login tool, which lets you sign in to other apps and websites using your Facebook credentials. Alternatively, you can go through a list of those services and disable Future Off-Facebook Activity for individual services to keep Facebook Login working on particular apps or websites. However, there’s no way to use Facebook to log in to other sites while keeping those sites from sharing all kinds of personal data.

“They’re unnecessarily punishing users for activating this setting,” Brookman says. “And again, this is just for people who go out of their way to find the setting and turn it off in the first place. I would prefer this be off by default and Facebook wasn’t collecting information about every single website and app that I use.”

How to use Off-Facebook Activity settings

The Off-Facebook Activity settings can be tricky to find.

To access the Off-Facebook Activity settings using a computer browser: Click the question mark icon in the top right of the Facebook home page > Privacy Shortcuts > View or clear your Off-Facebook activity > Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity. (The steps are similar on a phone browser or in the app. Tap the icon with the three stacked lines in the top right, and find Privacy Shortcuts under Settings.)

From there, you can hit the Clear History button to disconnect the information Facebook has already collected. To prevent the data from being used for targeted ads in the future, tap Manage Future Activity on the right hand side, hit the Manage Future Activity button on the next screen, then switch off the toggle. (To get here using the app, tap the three buttons in the top right of the Off-Facebook Activity screen.)

As discussed above, none of these settings will actually prevent Facebook from collecting your data; they’ll just limit how the data is used.

For a higher level of privacy, you can turn to outside tools.

First, you can install an ad blocking extension such as Disconnect, uBlock, or Privacy Badger on your browser to disrupt Facebook’s efforts to track you online.

The Mozilla Foundation, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox browser, has designed an ad blocker specifically for this task. It’s called Facebook Container, and it uses a unique browser tab to wall the social media platform off from the rest of your online activity.

It takes only a few clicks to install the Facebook Container extension. The directions are easy to find online.

Note that Consumer Reports uses Facebook’s services, too. For details on the data Consumer Reports collects, consult its privacy policy.