What You Can Do About Facebook Tracking
By Geoffrey A. Fowler
Aug. 5, 2014
Everyone loves to gripe about privacy on Facebook. Like me, you may have even threatened to quit. But let's be honest--we're not going to break up with a social network filled with people we care about.
I'm raising the issue because privacy on Facebook just took two steps forward and one step back. These relate to digital tracking, one of the creepiest and most confusing aspects of the social network.
Facebook is following you. It now can use what you do outside its network--when you surf the Web and use other apps on your smartphone--to target ads at you. Facebook says it needs the extra data to make its ads better.
At the same time, the company is starting to be more transparent. In a first for any major Internet company, it's offering to explain exactly why you're getting every ad you see and to let you control what kind of ads you will see in the future. They don't make these options very easy to find, however.
How should we feel about that? It's classic Mark Zuckerberg, forcing us to accept more tracking of our lives in exchange for some degree of control. Though its Web and app tracking aren't any worse than what we tolerate from other companies like Google, Facebook will end up knowing more about us than ever.
Exasperating as it is, it's a good reminder that Facebook isn't really free. It's an exchange, and you need to know what you're trading. Here are four cold, hard realities of Facebook's privacy policies--and what you can do about them right now:
Facebook doesn't sell your personal data. But it does make money from it--about $7 per member in revenue last year. Its main business is selling marketers access to you, but it does this without telling them who you are.
If the ads you see on Facebook sometimes seem eerily specific to you, that's because Facebook is constantly building out a dossier of your interests, derived from everything you do on Facebook, and (increasingly) things you do off it.
What you can do:
You can't stop receiving ads on Facebook--but you can keep Facebook from aiming specific ad topics at you.
For years, you've been able to click on a tiny icon of a down arrow or X in the right corner of an ad to keep ads from that company from coming back. As of late last week, Facebook began offering much more to everyone in the U.S. (and soon elsewhere).
Find an ad and click on the corner icon. (It's tiny, and you may have to hover your mouse over the area to see it.) From the pop-up menu, select "Why am I seeing this?" You'll get an explanation of what Facebook thinks made a good match between you and that particular ad.
Underneath that, there's a link labeled, "View and manage your ad preferences." From here, you'll be taken to Facebook's entire dossier on you.
It's a fascinating and slightly scary view of what Facebook has pegged you as being interested in over the years. Mine has a mix of the spot-on ("Muppets") and the useless ("Atlanta Falcons").
By removing items from the list, you can make Facebook show ads for fewer yet more pertinent topics--more kittens, less online shopping, for instance. You're actually helping Facebook by editing the list, because you're more likely to click on those ads.
If you remove all topics, Facebook reserves three pieces of information that it will never let you keep out of its ad-targeting system: your gender, age and where you live.
Facebook and its friends--ad companies--can tailor ads to you based on tracking where you go on the Web.
Back in 2010, Facebook did remarkably little covert tracking through cookies--tiny lines of code that live in your Web browser. Facebook swore it wasn't using its ubiquitous Like button for commercial purposes,  and that it used tracking for security purposes and to fix bugs.
Fast forward four years, and Facebook is all in on tracking. It started by allowing other ad companies who track people to place targeted ads on Facebook--leading to those commercials for Zappos shoes that seem to follow you around the Web. Now Facebook will target ads to you based on its own tracking.
Like many of Facebook's privacy shifts, this one is happening by default--and the onus is on you to opt out if you don't like it.
What you can do:
As long as your browser keeps cookies, you can't stop Facebook from tracking you. But you can stop it and other companies from using that information to deliver ads.
To do that, you must register with each company that tracks you--and there are dozens of them. The fastest way to opt out of many at once is to use the ad industry website www.aboutads.info/choices
Oddly, this dashboard is the only place to ask Facebook not to use Web tracking to target ads--you'll see it listed there among the other ad companies. A Facebook spokesman said it wanted to use the industry site because it "lets people who want to opt out to do it in one place rather than going to every website."
Facebook may also point you to individual opt-out pages of other ad trackers, especially to data brokers and those using tech to show you ads based on something you did online (like look at those Zappos shoes), through the "Why am I seeing this?" menu.
I wish this were easier. You need to go through this process for every Web browser on every computer and phone where you log into Facebook.
To be clear: Facebook and these other companies may still track you for other purposes like security, a reality that angers privacy advocates.
Facebook tracks what you do on your smartphone to tailor ads to you.
Phones can collect more personal information than computers, and Facebook certainly takes advantage of that. For example, the Facebook app lets you use your location to alert friends when you're nearby. It can even listen to what music is in the background when you're writing a post and add in a mention.
For tailoring ads, Facebook monitors your phone's location and app usage, including which apps you've not used for a while. In June, it also announced it would start using data from the mobile websites you browse.
What you can do:
You can stop Facebook from knowing your phone's location and limit it from using other information to target ads.
Most smartphones allow you to turn off location sharing with specific apps. For example, to turn it off for Facebook on an iPhone, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services, and then flip off the Facebook switch.
You can also stop Facebook from using app data--but you have to tell your phone, not Facebook. On an iPhone, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Advertising, and turn on Limit Ad Tracking. From an Android phone's Settings, go to Accounts, then select Google, and then Ads. There you can click "Opt out of interest-based ads."
But choosing these latter options doesn't stop Facebook completely from tracking your phone activity. Huh? Facebook says it can still get data from the apps of its business partners, to monitor how effective an ad is at getting you to play a game, for instance.
To stop Facebook from tracking what you do on your phone's Web browser, you'll have to visit that same anti-tracking site. 
All of these rules could change later.
Facebook says it will give members seven days' notice about big changes, but there's little you can do to stop it.
Several settlements with governments, including one with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, require Facebook to submit to privacy audits and to seek permission from members before changing the way their information is released.
What you can do:
Nothing, unless you and the people you care about leave Facebook. Which you won't.
Write to Geoffrey A. Fowler at firstname.lastname@example.org