Facebook To Give Users More Control Over Tracking

Faced with continuing pressure over its privacy practices, Facebook said Tuesday that it will soon allow users to wield more control over data it collects about them.

The company plans to roll out a "Clear History" feature that will enable users to prevent Facebook from correlating data collected throughout the web, via the ubiquitous "Like" button, with their accounts. The feature also will allow users to prevent that type of tracking data from being associated with their accounts in the future.

"The past several weeks have made clear that people want more information about how Facebook works and the controls they have over their information," Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan stated Tuesday.

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Egan says the company will still store information about the sites or apps that people use, but will strip information that could identify users. "We’ll work with privacy advocates, academics, policymakers and regulators to get their input on our approach, including how we plan to remove identifying information and the rare cases where we need information for security purposes," she stated.

Egan adds that Facebook plans to send developers and publishers aggregated data for analytics.

The company's move comes as the company faces continued criticism over revelations that President Trump's data consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, harvested data from as many as 87 million Facebook users. News of the data transfers sparked hearings on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers grilled Zuckerberg about the company's privacy practices, and prompted a Federal Trade Commission investigation.

Facebook also is under pressure in Europe, where new privacy rules will take effect May 25. Egan says the new tool will take "a few months" to build, meaning it won't be ready before the new European regulations come into effect.

Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumers Union, calls Facebook's move "a step in the right direction."

But he adds that much will depend on how Facebook goes about de-identifying browsing data.

"It could be done badly, it could be done pretty well," Brookman says. He adds that some studios have concluded that browsing data is intrinsically identifying.

Last year, researchers at Princeton and Stanford released the report, "De-anonymizing Web Browsing Data with Social Networks," which said ad networks may be able to determine many users' identities by linking supposedly anonymous web-browsing histories with publicly available data from social media services.

Brookman notes that privacy advocates have been asking Facebook to stop tracking people via the "Like" button for eight years. In June of 2010, advocacy groups including the Center for Democracy & Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Digital Democracy and ACLU of Northern California asked Facebook to refrain from saving identifiable information collected through social plugins.

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