Facebook Is Tracking Way More Than Your Rainbow Profile Pic

Photo: Courtesy Facebook.
Last week, Facebook showed us how to add a rainbow filter to our profile pictures to celebrate Pride. Now, people are freaking out because Facebook may be tracking who made their pictures polychrome and who didn't. There's no reason to stress, though: There's almost nothing you do online that isn't noted by somebody. The rainbow-pic tracking is the least of your worries.

When you're on Facebook, it records everything you do. Of course it knows what your status updates are, whose profiles you visit, and what photos you upload. It also knows what status updates and comments you start typing, but end up deleting (Facebook used this data in a study it published in late 2013). It may track your cursor movements, knowing when you hover over an ad or "submit" button but don't actually click, according to a 2013 interview with Facebook's analytics chief Ken Rudin. Through its mobile apps, like Facebook Messenger, the company is also able to track your location.

When you're on Facebook, it records everything you do.

It doesn't end there: Facebook keeps note of what you do across the rest of the web, using social plug-ins such as its “Like” button, which is on 13 million sites. Facebook stores tracking cookies on your computer after you visit any facebook.com page as well. Because of this, it knows the whereabouts of users who don't even have Facebook accounts, are logged out, or live in the EU and have opted out of tracking, according to research out of Belgium.

If you don't want Facebook tracking you across all of your Internet browsing, here's what to do: Click the X in the right-hand corner of an ad on your Facebook page. Then, click "Why am I seeing this ad?" and "Opt out of ads based on websites and apps off Facebook." There, you're taken to a website called Criteo, where you can opt out of personalized ads on Facebook and across the web. On the "Why am I seeing this ad?" page, you can also click to manage your ad preferences and see what topics Facebook thinks you're interested in (which it uses to surface more relevant ads). You can go through and edit these if, for example, you don't want to keep seeing ads for vitamins pop up in your feed ever since that one time you ordered vitamins online. (Aside: Do you remember when Facebook had a Myspace-like section of what books, movies, and bands you liked? This disappeared from your profile page, but still lives here, in your ad preferences.)

Of course, Facebook is not alone in its quest to capitalize on your web-browsing habits. Google tracks what websites you visit, what videos you watch, and what you search for (among a host of other things). Google recently updated its privacy settings page so it's easier to control what you do and don't want the company to monitor. And Uber, which now tracks your location information, also sells that information to third parties. Almost every website you visit tracks something about you, even if it's only how long you stayed on a page, or how many slideshow images you clicked through before getting bored.

If you're not paying for a service, what you're doing on that service is what's making that company money.

In many cases, this data collection is somewhat well-meaning: It's usually used to provide customized services the company thinks will enhance your experience, which can mean remembering often-searched phrases, locations you frequent, or advertisements it thinks you'll enjoy seeing. Regardless, it's important to remember that your data is constantly being tracked and monetized. If you're not paying for a service, what you're doing on that service is what's making that company money. You may be using the internet, but the internet is also using you.

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