The Many Problems With Facebook’s Tool to Dissociate Off-Facebook Behavioural Data

Erin Egan, Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, in May 2018:

Today, we’re announcing plans to build Clear History. This feature will enable you to see the websites and apps that send us information when you use them, delete this information from your account, and turn off our ability to store it associated with your account going forward. […]

It will take a few months to build Clear History.

Nicole Nguyen and Ryan Mac, reporting for Buzzfeed News last week, which — and I’m sure I don’t need to mention this to my very astute audience, but I feel like emphasizing the point — is a shade more than “a few months”:

Facebook collects information about its users in two ways: first, through the information you input into its website and apps, and second, by tracking which websites you visit while you’re not on Facebook. That’s why, after you visit a clothing retailer’s website, you’ll likely see an ad for it in your Facebook News Feed or Instagram feed. Basically, Facebook monitors where you go, all across the internet, and uses your digital footprints to target you with ads. But Facebook users have never been able to view this external data Facebook collected about them, until now.

Facebook tracks your browsing history via the “Login with Facebook” button, the “like” button, Facebook comments, and little bits of invisible code, called the Facebook pixel, embedded on other sites (including BuzzFeed News). Today the company will start to roll out a feature called “Off-Facebook Activity” that allows people to manage that external browsing data — finally delivering on a promise it made over a year ago when CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at a company event that it would develop a feature then called “Clear History.”


However, the data isn’t being removed from Facebook servers. Just as Facebook still collects aggregated, anonymous browsing information from people who are logged out or don’t have Facebook accounts, Facebook will treat people who have opted out of external website tracking similarly, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to BuzzFeed News.

Far from being a “clear history” feature, this is simply a way for Facebook to collect the same data it always has, except it promises it won’t tie your very personal browsing data with all of the information you’ve given Facebook, like your name and occupation. That’s not “deleting” anything.

Also, while I don’t like to argue with FUD, I will note that Facebook rarely announces that a bug or privacy exploit it found is not as catastrophic as it estimated.

If you’re interested in using this new tool, you should know that it has only launched in three countries so far: Ireland, Spain, and South Korea.

Robert Burnson, Bloomberg:

A state judge in Texas on Thursday temporarily blocked the planned rollout of the Off-Facebook Activity feature in the U.S. at the request of a woman who claims in a lawsuit the company didn’t do enough to save her from being trafficked after meeting predators on the social network as a teenager.


Lawyers for the woman who is suing, identified only as Jane Doe, asked Facebook to provide them with the browsing history of her alleged pimp, which the attorneys expected would reveal his ties to sex-trafficking sites. They said in a court filing that Facebook didn’t turn over the data they sought and that the history-clearing feature would allow the pimp to destroy evidence of his role in Doe’s exploitation.

Facebook’s company-wide pivot to privacy is going well.