Facebook under scrutiny for storing users’ browsing information even when logged out


Naheed Rajwani Daily Bruin, University of California – Los Angeles Americans spend about 53 billion minutes on Facebook per month – more than on any other social networking site, according to research conducted by the Nielsen Company. This means millions of users logging in and out on a daily basis. Recently, however, Facebook has come under scrutiny for its ability to monitor these users after logging out of the site. Ten public interest groups and two congressmen wrote to the Federal Trade Commission in late September requesting an investigation of Facebook’s privacy policy. In the letter, the groups said their concern was spurred by findings published by an Australian technology blogger, which indicated that Facebook had been gathering information about websites its users visited even after exiting the site. The networking site is also facing several lawsuits hinged on their information-gathering practices, one of which was filed in California late last month. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to The Associated Press, Facebook admitted that several of its cookies included identifiers on users’ computers even after they logged out. But the company said there was no security or privacy breach because the information had only been used to personalize content and provide security for its users. Facebook already tracks users’ browsing activity while a user is on the site, based on its terms of agreement. Facebook uses the information to tailor each advertisement to the user’s preferences and to suggest friends who have similar interests, the company said in the statement. Eric Bollens, fifth-year UCLA computer science student, said he thought Facebook had not violated privacy laws because it was only taking data provided by users through their own Web browsers. Web companies, including Google, have long tracked user activity for advertising purposes, he said. “Facebook has gotten us to relinquish our own information without even realizing it,” said Bollens, who works at the UCLA Office of Information Technology as a software architect. Younger users are especially comfortable sharing personal information with others through social networking, said Steve Peterson, professor of communication studies at UCLA. College-aged individuals are among the most active users of the site, according to the Nielsen Company. Under the current terms of agreement, users give Facebook a worldwide license to use content that is posted on or in connection with Facebook, which can be sublicensed to other companies. Lauren Palmer, second-year English student at UCLA, said she had not known that Facebook can access user activity. “The fact that Facebook has a tracker on my profile and can see what I am doing online is intimidating,” she said. Facebook’s data use policy states the site receives data from the computer, mobile phone or other device used to access the site – data including users’ IP addresses, locations, the type of browser they use and the pages they visit. Small files – called cookies – are installed routinely on users’ computers by websites to simplify the log-in process and track users’ online activity. Although he does not feel personally threatened, UCLA fourth-year neuroscience student Hansen Lui said Facebook should clearly tell its users that their Internet activity can be monitored. Lui added people should also just be careful about what they post on the website. “Some social networking sites failed because they weren’t well-constructed, but Facebook might die out if it continues to anger its users,” he said. Peterson, who has taught a social networking course at UCLA for about five years, said the number of students who use Facebook has declined over the years. “People are growing tired of the Facebook’s complex changes and because constantly sharing information becomes old after a while,” he said. Gabriel Rossman, UCLA sociology professor, said changes in Facebook’s privacy settings are making individuals uncomfortable with sharing information, but it will push them toward having a more unified sense of self. Individuals tailor their behavior to different social groups, but Facebook forces them to create a unified “profile,” Rossman said. But this might not be a bad thing, he added. “Facebook’s changes are pushing us to behave the same way in front of everyone we interact with,” he said.