by Dennis Anon
It’s no secret that Facebook users are the product. The platform collects huge amounts of data about individuals and businesses, turning its giant database into a money-making machine. Facebook earns over $100 billion per year in advertising revenue, and it all comes down to tracking user activity. This tracking is not just limited to the platform itself, but rather extends across the web. In this post, I reveal more about how and why Facebook tracks you around the web. I also show you how to stop Facebook and other sites tracking you.
How does Facebook track you?
The company can even use this method to collect information when you’re not logged into your Facebook account. Facebook collects a lot of information by default, and what is tracked depends on your device and permissions.
Here is a list of some of the data and apps that Facebook can access:
- Messages sent and received
- File sent and received
- Audio messages sent and received Phone contacts
- Call history
- Downloaded files
- Games played
- Photos and videos
- Search history
- Browsing history
Facebook isn’t shy about the fact that it collects data from third parties. Its website states:
“Advertisers, app developers, and publishers can send us information through Facebook Business Tools they use, including our social plug-ins (such as the Like button), Facebook Login, our APIs and SDKs, or the Facebook pixel.”
Wondering what data Facebook has stored about you? The platform does make it relatively straightforward to access and download your information. To give you an idea, when I downloaded my information in the past, the file was about 700MB in size. This equates to around 46,000 pages in a Word document.
So what is this data used for? The primary answer lies in the company’s multi-billion dollar ads business. Organizations across the globe rely on Facebook advertising to reach consumers, and Facebook ad targeting works so well because of the company’s vast data tracking initiatives.
How to stop Facebook tracking you
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to stop Facebook from tracking you. One is to stop using the platform altogether, but even then, it can be difficult to completely rid yourself of Facebook tracking cookies. Plus, this is simply not an option for many users who rely on Facebook for socializing, networking, running a business, and other activities the platform offers.
Here are some other ways to stop Facebook from tracking you:
- Change your Off-Facebook Activity settings
- Change your ad preferences
- Disable ad tracking at the device level
- Clear your Activity Log
- Turn off location tracking
- Use an anti-tracking extension
- Avoid social logins and provide minimal permissions
Let’s look at each of these in detail.
How to change your off-Facebook activity settings
In 2020, Facebook introduced a new feature that gives you more control over your data. The Off-Facebook Activity feature provides a summary of the activity that organizations and businesses share with Facebook about your interactions. For example, it might include using their apps, viewing web pages, or making purchases on their website. The information is shared with Facebook through Facebook Business Tools such as Facebook Pixel or Facebook Login.
As well as being able to view the information that Facebook has collected via this means, you can disable Off-Facebook Activity altogether.
Here’s how to use the Off-Facebook Activity feature:
- Select the downwards arrow icon in the upper right-hand corner of your profile.
- Click Settings & Privacy, then choose Settings.
- Select Your Facebook Information on the left.
- Choose Off-Facebook Activity, then click Manage Your Off-Facebook Activity.
- You may be prompted to enter your Facebook password and can then review all the information that has been shared with Facebook by businesses and organizations you’ve interacted with. It’s not uncommon to see hundreds or thousands of apps in this list and dozens or hundreds of interactions with each. Clicking on an individual company will show you how many interactions have been received from that site. Note that Facebook only provides general information here about how the activity was shared and the types of interactions received.
- You now have several options:
- To clear your history, click Clear History, and then after reviewing the message, select Clear History again.
- You can download the information as mentioned earlier.
- To stop Facebook from collecting all Off-Facebook Activity, click Manage Future Activity > Manage Future Activity, toggle Future Off-Facebook Activity to the off position, and select Turn Off.
- To turn off tracking for select sites, back in the Your Off-Facebook Activity screen, select an individual company, click Turn off future activity from [website], and hit Turn Off.
How to change your ad preferences
If you don’t mind tracking but hate that creepy feeling you get when you see an ad that relates to something you were just talking (or thinking) about, another option is to tell Facebook not to show you targeted ads. This feature has been available for several years but many users don’t know it exists.
To disable personalized ads, go to Settings & Privacy > Settings > Ads > Ad Settings > Data about your activity from partners. Toggle Use Data from Partners to the off position.
Note that this won’t impact the number of ads you see, just how the nature of those ads is determined. It also won’t stop Facebook from using data from its own platform to determine which ads to show you.
Also under Ad Settings, you can change your preferences for which categories (for example, your job and education) are used for advertisers to reach you based on their audience specifications. You can also view which sites have targeted you in audience-based advertising and adjust your preferences when it comes to Facebook showing you ads outside the platform.
How to disable ad tracking at the device level
Aside from telling Facebook to stop tracking you, you can change your tracking settings at the device level. The amount of control you have will depend on which device you’re using.
If you’re an Android user, you can disable personalized ads. Go to Settings > Google > Ads and toggle Opt out of Ads Personalization to the off position.
Also under Ads, select Reset Advertising ID and toggle Disable personalized ads to the on position.
You can turn off location-based ads by navigating to Settings > Security & Privacy > Location Access > System Services and disabling Location-based Ads.
Go to Settings > Privacy > General and disable Let apps use advertising ID…
iOS and macOS
If you’re an iOS or macOS user, you may be happy to know that the latest update includes some protections against data-sharing with Facebook. Users have to opt-in for data tracking to be enabled for some tools such as the Facebook pixel. Since, by default, Apple doesn’t allow third parties to track you unless you opt into tracking, there is no need to switch off third-party tracking at the device level. This is great for those that want to protect their privacy on an iPhone or Mac.
That said, there are ways around this for advertisers intent on collecting information, such as using Facebook’s Conversion API or Google Tag Manager.
How to clear your activity log
Aside from tracking your off-Facebook activity, of course, the platform tracks all your activity on Facebook too. We’ll show you how to clear this activity. Note that removing items from the Facebook platform doesn’t necessarily mean they are removed from Facebook’s servers and the company is pretty vague about this:
On the one hand, it says:
“Delete. When you delete something from the activity log, it will be deleted from Facebook and can’t be restored.”
But elsewhere, it states:
“When you choose to delete something you shared on Facebook, we remove it from the site. Some of this information is permanently deleted from our servers; however, some things can only be deleted when you permanently delete your account.”
If you do want to clear your activity log, in your account, start by clicking the downwards arrow in the upper right-hand corner. Select Settings & Privacy > Activity Log. In the left sidebar menu, choose the Logged Actions and Other Activity dropdown.
From here, you can view the actions that Facebook has logged, including your Facebook search history, the videos you’ve watched, and more. Clicking each activity individually will bring up a list. At the top-right of the list, you will see an option to clear your history of that particular category of actions.
How to turn off Facebook location tracking
You can also tell Facebook not to track your location. There are two places where you can do this:
- Change your app permissions such that Facebook never has access to your location.
- Tell Facebook not to track your location within the mobile app. Do this by selecting the menu button in the bottom right-hand corner of the app and selecting Settings & Privacy > Privacy Shortcuts > Manage your location settings and choosing Never. While here, you can also select Location History and toggle this feature to the off position.
However, even if you complete both of these steps, there is a loophole Facebook can use. It can still track your location based on metadata from your photos. One way to avoid this is to strip your images of metadata before uploading them to Facebook and other sites owned by the company, including Instagram.
How to use an anti-tracking extension
Anti-tracking extensions can be added to your browser or installed as a mobile app, similar to those that remove spyware. They can be helpful in blocking cookies from Facebook and other sites that are tracking you around the web. In addition, some extensions will prevent ads from popping up, which is ideal if you prefer not to see any advertisements at all.
There are lots of solid anti-tracking extensions available, including:
- AdBlock Plus (Browsers, iOS, Android, Samsung Internet)
- DuckDuckGo (Browsers, Android, iOS)
- uBlock Origin (Browsers only)
- Ghostery (Browsers, Ghostery Privacy Browser for Android and iOS)
- Privacy Badger (Browsers and Firefox Mobile)
Bear in mind that anti-tracking extensions and ad blockers are not always reliable. As stated by the AdBlock Plus support team:
“Please keep in mind that Facebook is an enormous company with multiple teams devoted to ad blocking circumvention. We always do our best to block as much as we can on sites like Facebook, but it’s not always possible with 100% accuracy. Even with AdBlock enabled, you will see some sponsored posts.”
When signing up with third-party apps, it often seems convenient to set up the login through a social media app like Facebook. This way, you can get started quickly and don’t have to remember another password.
However, by linking apps through Facebook, you are opening a gateway between Facebook and the third party through which they share information. In general, it’s better to log into new apps using your email address. You can use a throwaway email or create an email address specifically for this purpose.
If you do decide to use a social media login option, you’ll likely be asked for permission to access various types of information such as your contacts and calendar. Always decline these requests unless it’s information the app needs to function.