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A few issues with Facebook’s just launched Clear History tool

Facebook will allow users around the world to see, and control their data that third parties have shared with the platform, it said in a blog post on January 28. Called the “Off Facebook activity,” it is the information that businesses and organisations share with Facebook on the basis of users’ interactions with those sites and apps. Users can see a copy of that information and also clear it from their accounts, using the “clear history tool”. Facebook in turn, uses users’ off-Facebook activity to run targeted ads at them. Also, there is a catch to the new tool: it doesn’t really delete users’ data from Facebook or other third-parties, but only severs the connection between the two — meaning that Facebook will continue receiving users’ data from other platforms that use its business tools, but will not link that data to a user’s Facebook profile.

Facebook had announced the clear history tool at its F8 conference in 2018, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and it had rolled out in 3 countries including Ireland, Spain and South Korea in 2019.

How to access the new feature: We tried looking for the feature, and quickly realised that it isn’t the most accessible of options, since it is tucked away under the “your Facebook information,” under the settings menu. When we clicked on it, Facebook showed up a little explainer on what off-Facebook activity is, and how it received that information in the first place. On the same page, there are options to manage off-Facebook activity, clear history, access information by category, download off-Facebook activity, and manage such activities in the future.

An insight on which third-parties shared my data with Facebook: I found out that 351 apps and websites had shared my data, on the basis of my interactions with those platforms, with Facebook (the above screenshot was taken after I had cleared my history). Surprisingly, it included certain websites where I had never even used my Facebook credentials, such as michelin.in, and firstpost.com to name a few. I could see how many instances of interactions were shared with Facebook. For instance, Facebook received 26 of my interactions from firstpost.com. Examples of interactions include:

  • Opened an app
  • Logged in to app with Facebook
  • Visited a website
  • Searched for an item
  • Added an item to a wishlist
  • Added an item to a basket
  • Made a purchase
  • Made a donation

Facebook said that some of the activity might be unrecognisable to users, and that is because that data was sent by a data service provider or marketing agency. It said that businesses and organisations may use third-party data service providers or marketing agencies to analyse and understand their customers’ interactions on their apps and websites. These providers or agencies may then use Facebook’s Business Tools to send users’ activity to it, on behalf of the business or organisation. Facebook also clarified that it prohibits organisations from sharing sensitive personal information, such as health and financial data, with it. Users can also download a HTML report of all the information that third-parties shared with Facebook.

It doesn’t delete users’ data that Facebook or third-parties have: In the blog post, Facebook said that the new tool will aid transparency and give users control over their data. However, while this does allow for some transparency, the idea that it gives users more control over their data seems far fetched. While users can manage their off-Facebook activity, in case they choose to turn it off, it won’t clear their data that Facebook and other third-parties have, instead, only clear the connection between those two data sets. In fact, when you choose to turn off your off Facebook activity, it explicitly tells you that Facebook will still receive your data from the businesses and organisations you visit, just that that data will be disconnected from your Facebook profile.

Caveats to turning off off-Facebook activity

Additionally, when users choose to clear the history of their off-Facebook activity, Facebook doesn’t explicitly mention if users data that Facebook and other third-parties have would be cleared. The only thing that Facebook said is that users’ activity history will be disconnected from their device, and that Facebook will continue receiving their data from the businesses and organisations that they visit in the future. It also doesn’t mean that users will stop seeing fewer advertisements. Facebook clarified that users will still see the same numbers of ads, and the platform would rely on users’ ad preferences on Facebook to show targeted ads.

Caveats to clearing off-Facebook activity history

Facebook receives more information than it shows: The off-Facebook activity doesn’t showcase all the information, due to “technical and accuracy reasons,” the platform said. This includes things like information Facebook received when users are not logged into their account, or when it can’t confirm that a user has previously used Facebook on that device. It also won’t show details like the items users added to their shopping cart.

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