Privacy groups call for action to stop Facebook's off site user tracking plans

Authorities should act immediately to stop this new vast expansion of Facebook's data collection and user profiling, privacy groups said

By , IDG News Service |  Security

U.S. and EU privacy and consumer groups called on privacy regulators to stop Facebook's plans to gather the Internet browsing patterns of its users while they visit other sites.

The groups, gathered in the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) to stop Facebook collecting the web browsing activities of Internet users in order to target advertising. They made the request in a letter sent to the authorities on Tuesday. Facebook's European headquarters is in Ireland, giving the Irish data protection commissioner responsibility for defending its European users' personal data and privacy rights under EU law.

The privacy groups expressed "deep alarm" about Facebook's June announcement that it would start tracking information from some of the websites and apps its users are visiting in order to serve more relevant ads.

At the time, Facebook said: "When we ask people about our ads, one of the top things they tell us is that they want to see ads that are more relevant to their interests," the company said at the time, adding that in the U.S. it would "soon" start tracking users' off-site surfing behavior. Anyone who doesn't want to be tracked can opt out via the Digital Advertising Alliance website.

But on Tuesday the groups said: "Facebook already installs cookies and pixel tags on users' computers to track browsing activity on Facebook.com and Facebook apps. If Facebook is permitted to expand its data collection practices, those cookies and pixel tags will also track users' browsing activity on any website that includes a few lines of Facebook code."

Authorities should "act immediately to notify the company that it must suspend its proposed change in business practices to determine whether it complies with current U.S. and EU law," the groups said, asking the authorities to make any findings public so they can be reviewed.

In the past, Facebook has stated it does not track users across the web and said no information received when users see a Facebook social plugin on a third party website is used to target ads, the groups said. However, Facebook's proposed data collection expansion directly contradicts its previous statements, they said.

Facebook's proposed use of pixel tags to track users is almost identical to its 2007 Beacon program. Within that advertising program, 1x1 pixel GIF tags were used to track users' browsing history on non-Facebook websites and to transmit that information to Facebook's own servers, they said.

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