Facebook Tracking Users Without Consent? FTC Calls for Probe

Privacy concerns have prompted the Federal Trade Commission and lawmakers to push for an investigation into reports that social network Facebook collects data from users even after they log out of their profiles.

In a Sept. 28 address to the chairmen of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz expressed a strong concern about rumors that Facebook is tracking user behavior without consent or knowledge.

"When users log out of Facebook, they are under the expectation that Facebook is no longer monitoring their activities," Leibowitz wrote. "We believe this impression should be reality. Facebook users should not be tracked without their permission."

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An Australian Technology blogger ignited panic about Facebook's information-gathering practices earlier this week.

The social networking site, according to the Australian Financial Reporting Council, routinely installs small files commonly referred to as "cookies" on user computers. The cookies benefit users by allowing them to bypass login authentication. They also allow websites to track users' online activities.

Blogger Nik Cubrilovic discovered through tests that Facebook cookies are following logged-out users to the next Web pages they visit.

"Even if you are logged out, Facebook still knows and can track every page you visit," Cubrilovic wrote in a blog post. "The only solution is to delete every Facebook cookie in your browser, or to use a separate browser for Facebook interactions."

Internet privacy watchdog Electronic Frontiers Australia supported Cubrilovic's findings.

According to Australia’s ABC News, EFA spokesman Stephen Collins said, "What has happened now with some of Facebook's new services that they've just started to introduce and they're proposing to introduce shortly is that there is the potential for – even when you're logged out of Facebook – those cookies to track what you're doing and potentially to reveal to people, when you didn't intend to reveal to them, what you've been doing and where you've been going on the web, and it may be that you're going places that you don't want to tell people you're going."

In answering Cubrilovic, Facebook engineer Gregg Stefancik admitted that the social network alters – not deletes – cookies when users log out and those cookies are, in fact, collecting information.

Facebook's statement to the Sydney Morning Herald indicated, "Facebook does not track users across the web. Instead, we use cookies on social plug-ins to personalise [sic] content (e.g. show you what your friends liked), to help maintain and improve what we do (e.g. measure click-through rate), or for safety and security (e.g. keeping underage kids from trying to sign up with a different age). No information we receive when you see a social plug-in is used to target ads; we delete or anonymise [sic] this information within 90 days, and we never sell your information."

Despite Facebook's effort to assuage users, Leibowitz worried that the online giant is tracking users on the estimated 905,000 sites that feature its "Like" button. An investigation, he stated, would press Facebook officials to create a permanent fix for the unlogged data it collects.

"Facebook should consider this problem a top priority and should allocate their resources necessary to safeguard consumers in an expedited fashion," Leibowitz said.

He continued, "We believe that an investigation of Facebook tracking its user even after they log out falls within the FTC's mandate as stipulated in Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act with respect to protecting Americans from 'unfair and deceptive acts or practices.'"

The letters were sent to Congressional Privacy Caucus co-chairmen Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas). Both men have expressed their displeasure with Facebook's approach.

"Facebook should consider this problem a top priority and should allocate the resources necessary to safeguard consumers in an expedited fashion," the members responded in a written statement.

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