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June 17, 2015

Is Facebook Gathering Personal Data Without Consent?

Facebook is a transcendent and dominating force all across the planet. The social media platform has pushed its way into virtually every crack and crevasse of the digital world. The colossal platform is not only the most prevalent of the social media destinations but also has some of the most popular apps on earth and plugins on 13 million different sites across the web, including government agencies.

It seems as if every year Facebook comes under fire for new allegations of invading the privacy of its users or for questionable practices as to how private information is handled and utilized.

Unfortunately, 2015 is no different as reports begin to surface that Facebook’s privacy policy violates European consumer protection laws. As is turns out, Facebook tracks the web browsing of every person who visits either Facebook, or a page that simply has a Facebook plugin (such as Like buttons) regardless of whether the user is logged into Facebook or even has a Facebook account. This is done through installing cookies on devices without a user’s knowledge or permission.

For those that are not familiar with the term, cookies are small files installed on to computers by websites. These files store settings, activities, and other bits of information deemed “necessary”. These are then sent to the websites with each visit which ultimately allow a site to identify specific computers and track that device’s movement across the internet.

The Belgian Privacy Commission recruited researchers from the Centre of Interdisciplinary Law and ICT (ICRI) and the Computer Security and Industrial Cryptography department (Cosic) at the University of Leuven, and the media, information and telecommunication department (Smit) at Vrije Universiteit Brussels to determine how Facebook processes the information collected of those who have Facebook accounts, non-users, and those who have opted-out of tracking in the EU.

The original draft report did confirm that Facebook’s privacy policy is in breach of European law by tracking EU users’ information without consent.

The Belgian Privacy Commission has come out on the matter as stating, “Facebook ‘processes’ the personal data of its members, users as well as of all internet users who come into contact with Facebook. Facebook does this secretively: no consent is asked for this ‘tracking and tracing’ and the use of cookies. No targeted information is provided. The available information is vague and authorizes just about anything.” The Commission later went on to state that the results of the study are “disconcerting” and that “Facebook disregards European and Belgian privacy legislation in several ways”.

To make matters worse, Facebook has not only been secretively tracking those who come into contact with anything Facebook-owned on the web, but Facebook has been placing new cookies on computers of those who opt-out and have never been tracked before.

Co-author to the report, Gűnes Acar of Cosic, was quoted as saying “If people who are not being tracked by Facebook use the ‘opt out’ mechanism proposed for the EU, Facebook places a long-term, uniquely identifying cookie, which can be used to track them for the next two years.” He added “What’s more, we found that Facebook does not place any long-term identifying cookie on the opt-out sites suggested by Facebook for US and Canadian users.”

These findings were ultimately corroborated by an unrelated study conducted by Steven Englehardt from Princeton University’s department of computer science. “I started with a fresh browsing session and received an additional ‘datr’ cookie that appears capable of uniquely identifying users on the UK version of the European opt-out site. This cookie was not present during repeat tests with a fresh session on the US or Canadian version.”

Due to these allegations, Facebook has spoken out in defense, stating that, “This report contains factual inaccuracies. The authors have never contacted us, nor sought to clarify any assumptions upon which their report is based. Neither did they invite our comment on the report before making it public. We have explained in detail the inaccuracies in the earlier draft report (after it was published) directly to the Belgian DPA, who we understand commissioned it, and have offered to meet with them to explain why it is incorrect, but they have declined to meet or engage with us. However, we remain willing to engage with them and hope they will be prepared to update their work in due course.”

“Earlier this year we updated our terms and policies to make them more clear and concise, to reflect new product features and to highlight how we’re expanding people’s control over advertising. We’re confident the updates comply with applicable laws including EU law.”

The authors of the study, Brendan Van Alsenoy and Gűnes Acar, refute this claim through a quote to The Guardian in which the authors state, “We welcome comments via the contact email address listed within the report. Several people have already reached out to provide suggestions and ideas, which we really appreciate.”

“To date, we have not been contacted by Facebook directly nor have we received any meeting request. We’re not surprised that Facebook holds a different opinion as to what European data protection laws require. But if Facebook feels today’s releases contain factual errors, we’re happy to receive any specific remarks it would like to make.”

Regardless of which side is correct on the matter of “factual inaccuracies”, Facebook does not get the benefit of the doubt here. It has an abysmal track record on privacy, with news headlines about how this online company was conducting business in secretive and destructive ways.

Whatever the case may be, all of Europe has a close watch on Facebook and this will not be the last we hear of this incognito invasion of privacy.

Do you believe that Facebook will ultimately have to atone for their digital sins? What kind of backlash do you believe this will bring down upon the company, if any?


Digital producer, online marketer, community manager, and multi-faceted writer Tina Courtney-Brown has been managing cross-functional teams for online businesses since 1996. Tina has assisted many clients in maximizing online production and marketing efforts, and is a staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs. She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney and JDate, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, massively multiplayer games, community management, social networks, and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, nonprofit director and spiritual counselor. Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook and Google+.

15 Responses to “Is Facebook Gathering Personal Data Without Consent?

    I like facebook .. 😉

    avatar William says:

    I don’t!!

    I hate facebook. It invades my private life.

    avatar Steve Timmins says:

    Privacy is Privacy!

    Facebook thinks they can do anything they want. They deserve to be fined for this latest escapade.

    Facebook is only as good as their share price, and they are inflated most of the time to make them look more valuable than they really are.


    Steve Timmins

    avatar Ankit Arora says:

    I think facebook gathers personal data at the very start and most facebook users are not aware of this .
    Facebook should make this information public.

    I think it will come down to a simple question. Is tracking a browser and computer’s activity the same thing as tracking a ‘person’ ? It’s a valid question because technically when facebook tracks activity they are monitoring the data transmissions of a machine without an identity. When a person uses the machine anonymously does it mean facebook is tracking ‘the person’ or the browse data. If the data is not tied to an username or real identity, is it really tracking a person? No, it’s tracking the applications conditions through time. I’m not sure if the law people will be technical enough to realize this. It does seem smart to inspect the inner workings of facebook, but at some point anonymous data tracking does not matter when its built into every server system.

    i like facebook …… this is fine social site , all man and women like this web site

    avatar Rabin says:

    I love Facebook 🙂 but yes, it is also very important to secure our privacy.
    I think by disabling cookies we can do this.

    avatar SAK says:

    Its an old story but very important about our consent

    Facebook not Number 1

    avatar Soowec says:

    The subject matter of privacy invasion and online security of data has long been a thing of great agitation on the WWW and it will still continue to be to the nearest future.

    avatar Kevin says:

    Yes Social networks like Facebook, twitter do access user data without consent. And something to be done to secure user’s data

    Yes! I personally think that Facebook is gathering our personal data without taking our permission and that’s the only reason I am not using Facebook app or Messenger in my phone. Thinking to uninstall Whatsapp from my phone as well.

    I don’t think Facebook is violating our privacy… I trust them…but not sure about other such organisations…

    Even government of India is violating our privacy through Adhaar card and spreading it with big firms.

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