How to take control of Facebook ad tracking

Here are four cold, hard realities of the social network's privacy policies -- and what you can do about them.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 6, 2014 10:20AM

Using Facebook on iPhoneBy Geoffrey Fowler, The Wall Street Journal

Everyone loves to gripe about privacy on Facebook (FB). Like me, you may have even threatened to quit. But let's be honest -- we're not going to break up with a social network filled with people we care about.

The Wall St. Journal on MSN MoneyInstead, let's do something real: Get a grip on Facebook's 9,000-word privacy policy and take concrete steps to control our information.

I'm raising the issue because privacy on Facebook just took two steps forward and one step back. These relate to digital tracking, one of the creepiest and most confusing aspects of the social network.

Facebook is following you. It now can use what you do outside its network -- when you surf the Web and use other apps on your smartphone -- to target ads at you. Facebook says it needs the extra data to make its ads better.

At the same time, the company is starting to be more transparent. In a first for any major Internet company, it's offering to explain exactly why you're getting every ad you see and to let you control what kind of ads you will see in the future. They don't make these options very easy to find, however.

How should we feel about that? It's classic Mark Zuckerberg, forcing us to accept more tracking of our lives in exchange for some degree of control. Though its Web and app tracking aren't any worse than what we tolerate from other companies like Google (GOOG), Facebook will end up knowing more about us than ever.

Exasperating as it is, it's a good reminder that Facebook isn't really free. It's an exchange, and you need to know what you're trading. Here are four cold, hard realities of Facebook's privacy policies -- and what you can do about them right now:

The reality: Facebook doesn't sell your personal data. But it does make money from it -- about $7 per member in revenue last year. Its main business is selling marketers access to you, but it does this without telling them who you are.

If the ads you see on Facebook sometimes seem eerily specific to you, that's because Facebook is constantly building out a dossier of your interests, derived from everything you do on Facebook, and (increasingly) things you do off it.

What you can do: You can't stop receiving ads on Facebook -- but you can keep Facebook from aiming specific ad topics at you.

For years, you've been able to click on a tiny icon of a down arrow or X in the right corner of an ad to keep ads from that company from coming back. As of late last week, Facebook began offering much more to everyone in the U.S. (and soon elsewhere).

Find an ad and click on the corner icon. (It's tiny, and you may have to hover your mouse over the area to see it.) From the pop-up menu, select "Why am I seeing this?" You'll get an explanation of what Facebook thinks made a good match between you and that particular ad.

Underneath that, there's a link labeled, "View and manage your ad preferences." From here, you'll be taken to Facebook's entire dossier on you.

It's a fascinating and slightly scary view of what Facebook has pegged you as being interested in over the years. Mine has a mix of the spot-on ("Muppets") and the useless ("Atlanta Falcons").

By removing items from the list, you can make Facebook show ads for fewer yet more pertinent topics -- more kittens, less online shopping, for instance. You're actually helping Facebook by editing the list, because you're more likely to click on those ads.

If you remove all topics, Facebook reserves three pieces of information that it will never let you keep out of its ad-targeting system: your gender, age and where you live.

The reality: Facebook and its friends -- ad companies -- can tailor ads to you based on tracking where you go on the Web.

Back in 2010, Facebook did remarkably little covert tracking through cookies -- tiny lines of code that live in your Web browser. Facebook swore it wasn't using its ubiquitous Like button for commercial purposes, and that it used tracking for security purposes and to fix bugs.

Fast forward four years, and Facebook is all in on tracking. It started by allowing other ad companies who track people to place targeted ads on Facebook -- leading to those commercials for Zappos shoes that seem to follow you around the Web. Now Facebook will target ads to you based on its own tracking.

Like many of Facebook's privacy shifts, this one is happening by default -- and the onus is on you to opt out if you don't like it.

What you can do: As long as your browser keeps cookies, you can't stop Facebook from tracking you. But you can stop it and other companies from using that information to deliver ads.

To do that, you must register with each company that tracks you -- and there are dozens of them. The fastest way to opt out of many at once is to use the ad industry website

Oddly, this dashboard is the only place to ask Facebook not to use Web tracking to target ads -- you'll see it listed there among the other ad companies. A Facebook spokesman said it wanted to use the industry site because it "lets people who want to opt out to do it in one place rather than going to every website."

Facebook may also point you to individual opt-out pages of other ad trackers, especially to data brokers and those using tech to show you ads based on something you did online (like look at those Zappos shoes), through the "Why am I seeing this?" menu.

I wish this were easier. You need to go through this process for every Web browser on every computer and phone where you log into Facebook.

To be clear: Facebook and these other companies may still track you for other purposes like security, a reality that angers privacy advocates.

The reality: Facebook tracks what you do on your smartphone to tailor ads to you.

Phones can collect more personal information than computers, and Facebook certainly takes advantage of that. For example, the Facebook app lets you use your location to alert friends when you're nearby. It can even listen to what music is in the background when you're writing a post and add in a mention.

For tailoring ads, Facebook monitors your phone's location and app usage, including which apps you've not used for a while. In June, it also announced it would start using data from the mobile websites you browse.

What you can do: You can stop Facebook from knowing your phone's location and limit it from using other information to target ads.

Most smartphones allow you to turn off location sharing with specific apps. For example, to turn it off for Facebook on an iPhone, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services, and then flip off the Facebook switch.

You can also stop Facebook from using app data -- but you have to tell your phone, not Facebook. On an iPhone, go to Settings, then Privacy, then Advertising, and turn on Limit Ad Tracking. From an Android phone's Settings, go to Accounts, then select Google, and then Ads. There you can click "Opt out of interest-based ads."

But choosing these latter options doesn't stop Facebook completely from tracking your phone activity. Huh? Facebook says it can still get data from the apps of its business partners, to monitor how effective an ad is at getting you to play a game, for instance.

To stop Facebook from tracking what you do on your phone's Web browser, you'll have to visit that same anti-tracking site.

The reality: All of these rules could change later.

Facebook says it will give members seven days' notice about big changes, but there's little you can do to stop it.

Several settlements with governments, including one with the Federal Trade Commission in 2011, require Facebook to submit to privacy audits and to seek permission from members before changing the way their information is released.

Facebook told the FTC about its new tracking procedures, but didn't actually have to get consent from users. Why? Because the fine print had been in the privacy policy for years. A billion users have already, mostly unwittingly, given their permission.

What you can do: Nothing, unless you and the people you care about leave Facebook. Which you won't.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Aug 10, 2014 7:04AM

Like sheep to the slaughter....

I don't and won't ever use Facebook (or Twitter.)

I have no need of either but they need me.

I can do fine without them.

Aug 10, 2014 9:05AM
Maybe that is part of the reason I rarely log into facebook.   I'm not much interested in sharing the details of my life with the public!
Aug 10, 2014 11:03AM
Facebook is nothing more then a Myspace and everyone left them because of the ads. So why is everyone staying with Facebook knowing they do more then just ads? They track your every step, government has full access to your page. 
 I just don't understand it, I also don't understand why they call it a social network to me it is breaking up the society and many families. 

 Never will get it and I hope everyone deactivate their page. 

Aug 10, 2014 11:16AM
I banned myself from Facebook and moved an email address to spam of the guy who wanted to do me "a favor" by thinking I'd be interested in Linked in.. No social media as I'm don't care what others had for breakfast or selfies for that matter.
Aug 10, 2014 1:40PM
"How to take control of Facebook ad tracking"...The answer is simple. Don't ever sign up on it. Problem solved.
Aug 10, 2014 12:54PM
"You can't stop receiving ads on Facebook"? Sure you can - it's called Adblock.
Aug 10, 2014 1:18PM
And the Facebook sheep march on. I refuse to subscribe to any social networks, period. I disable and/or block all tracking on my computers, tablets and cell phones, including location tracking. What I do and when and where I do it are nobody's business but my own. Of course, I'm not ignorant and I'm fully aware that back doors undoubtedly exist for my ISP and government agencies, which I can do nothing about. If you want to be a pawn, and really nothing but a commodity for corporations to make money by tracking your activities, then feel free to do so; however, you have no one to blame but yourselves when you realize the extent of this invasion of your privacy and its consequences.
Here's an idea: don't use facebook. It shows how stupid the American public have become thanks to the social programming in the media and schools, they're ready to accept their giant turd sandwich from those running things and then ask for another.
Aug 10, 2014 10:09AM
All the cool people are on facebook .................. NOT
Aug 10, 2014 3:56PM

Facebook is based on P.T. Barnum's saying..".there's a sucker born every minute". Facebook  is nothing  more than a huge data base that is sold to advertisers, businesses and anyone else who'll pay for target lists. Facebook monitors and records every bit of info they can get their hands on about you. If a company wanted a list of teenage girls with acne, Facebook has a big one to sell. How do you think that a$$hole became a billionaire? What's really ironic is he stole the idea.

Aug 10, 2014 11:27PM
I have never had Farcebook... er, Facebook.  Don't need all of that selling of my information to corporations and the government.  I absolutely hate how so many other websites have sold themselves out and sold their customers off to Facebook.  Many sites now only allow you to log in using Facebook or, you can use your email address but in return, you authorize Facebook access to your email account and address book.  The day Facebook crumbles into ruins will be the happiest day for the Internet! 
used to be that Lawyers were the scum of the Earth, today, Advertisers are worse than Lawyers.
I HATE advertisers!!!! 

Aug 10, 2014 11:08AM
9,000 words is the equivalent of 36 typed pages.  That's a damn short story!
Aug 10, 2014 9:54PM

No problem. If I click on a headline about something I want to read and I'm instantly hit with an ad,I go back to the page I was on and I don't go back.

Go ahead,put up your ads everywhere. You need to make money.

I'm still not going to buy something  just because of an ad I saw about it.

I am on FB in a very limited basis as it is. Not even an every day deal for me.

I have 1 page liked and it's a local radio station. No goofy questionnaires or tests.

I left it for 2 years because of the BS and came back on a very limited basis.

It keeps me in contact with a couple of people I talk to. Period.

I really don't care if people post a picture of their dine out meals.

FB is actually a large part of the problem with society these days.

Go somewhere,like to a mall or a large store and hang out for like an hour.

Just watch people. Most are attached to their phone as if their life depended on it. Zombified.

Or,a**holes weaving in traffic like a drunk because they're paying more attention to their phone than the road. The same people who also just sit there at the front of the pack when the light turns green,holding up traffic because they may miss someone else's instant on their phone.

No respect or consideration for how they affect other people with their little toys.

Another time I came out of an office. A woman was there waiting for someone to bring her spare car key. She locked her keys in the car,but she sure as hell didn't forget what?...her phone,of course.

My info on FB is a pen name with an email address set up strictly for that site also.

Even if they figure it out by reading this,I couldn't care any less.

I don't need FB as much as they need people to log into their crap daily.

Yes,I'm very familiar with gadgets and technology. I know the basic operation of most gadgets.

I'll just stick to charging an arm and a leg for idiots who can only use them though...barely at that. ;)



Aug 10, 2014 8:04PM
Non-ad content on Facebook: 

40% random food photos
30% random selfies
10% random animals photos
10% random scenery photos 
5% current issues about which if you voice your true opinion, you will be publicly flayed and shamed in a relentless social media campaign launched by the "We're Passionate for One Day Club" (membership in the millions). 

5% content from friends, family, and other people from whom you actually want to see updates but whose updates get buried beneath all of the above. Furthermore, displaying interest in this 5% of content will result in the bombardment of additional meaningless content that further makes it difficult to see the content in which you're actually interested. 

This is why I deleted both the Facebook Messenger app and the actual Facebook app from my smartphone. Unfortunately, many people I actually care about do use Facebook for messaging. 

As such, if I need to use Facebook I use the browser on my smartphone with GPS turned off. 
This limits their tracking to whatever I do on the site (clicking Like, which I rarely do), so I see this as good enough. 
Aug 10, 2014 4:00PM
I have an I don't see the ads--best thing ever!

Aug 11, 2014 3:12AM
AdBlock, DisconnectMe, DoNotTrackMe and Duck Duck Go do a fine job of blocking tracking from all websites, not just facebook. Virtually no ads and my junk mail went from 15-20 a day down to 1 or 2. Try them. I think you'll be as happy as I am with them.
Also, to all those saying they don't/won't use facebook. You do realize that nearly every website you visit tracks you? Check out for some info about internet tracking that may or may not shock you.
Aug 11, 2014 1:54AM
Nero fiddled while Rome burned-Randall Flagg plays golf while the Middle East burns.
Aug 10, 2014 11:43PM

On your search engine, you should also go to tools and block or limit tracking. You can also scroll to the bottom of your search engine down where it has privacy. It will tell you about tracking on advertisements. Hit this and a list of ad suppliers will come up. Opt out of all those companies. When you do this, it will knock out almost all the ads you see on any page you go to including Facebook.

What you are basically looking for is opt out advertisement.

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