Jun 04 2012

Using Facebook without being tracked

Published by at 6:21 pm under Privacy,Social Networking,Testing

I’ve always hated the way Facebook has endeavored to track every single action their users do.  Which is funny, considering how much of my life I put on Twitter.  But the main difference between the two social media platforms is about choice, at least for me.  With Twitter, I decide what to put online 140 characters at a time.  I might reveal a little more information if I’m not careful with GPS settings on my phone or camera, but for the most part it’s simply the statements that I choose to make that go online and are published for everyone to read.  However, from the early days, Facebook has been far more intrusive and has done everything they can to track each and every digital step that it’s users take.  With constantly shifting privacy policy, the way they change and reset privacy settings every few months and Timeline being a tracking monstrosity that became mandatory, Facebook is a privacy advocate’s worst nightmare.  The list of ways that Facebook tracks and collates data on every user is both awe inspiring and terrifying in it’s magnitude and Timeline is a privacy violation of the first order, at least in my mind. 

But, to put it quite simply, they’re the biggest kid in the social media playground.  When your grandmother, who can barely answer an email, starts following you on Facebook, you know it’s gotten deep penetration in the marketplace.   And since it’s so big, just by nature of it’s natural gravity, more users and more businesses are drawn to it.  If you don’t have an account, people look at you like you’re a little strange and behind the times, whether it’s true or not.  Quite frankly, in many people’s lives, it’s become a necessary tool for communicating with friends, family and/or customers, to the point that not having an account is nearly unthinkable. 

Even I’ve had a Facebook account for years, as much as I’ve hated the idea.  The main reason I created it was simply to grab my own name; I had already seen several people in the security community be impersonated by someone who grabbed their name before they did and have a page created for them.  Usually with malicious aims.  I didn’t want to have that happen to me, so grabbed my account.  I used it a little at first, mostly by integrating my twitter stream into Facebook, but as the privacy concerns got bigger and bigger, I stopped using it all together.  I kept the account and logged in every six months or so, immediately clearing my cookies and rebooting my system afterward to clean the stain it left behind.  I know millions of people use Facebook daily without serious harm, but the thought of having my activities tracked to the degree that Facebook does it is not something I’m comfortable with.

But, as I stated earlier, if you’re not on Facebook, you’re handicapping yourself in interacting with friends, family and the people you do business with in a significant way.  As much as I hate being tracked, I came to the conclusion that it’s time find a way to use Facebook while also maintaining control of what data is being pulled into my social media network(*).  So I did what any social media security geek would do, I tweeted about the problem and waited for the replies to come in.  And did they ever.  I’ve collected some of the best links and software suggestions below.

When all was said and done, I decided the best way for me to use Facebook was to use the one major browser I hadn’t been using on my main system, Chrome.  Rockmelt sounded cool, but I didn’t want to spend the time to research it and learn a different interface.  Adding privacy filters or other extensions that allowed me to use Facebook privately in Firefox had some appeal, but relying on the extensions to keep up with Facebook’s changing policies and technologies didn’t inspire confidence in me over the long haul.  I already had Chrome installed and wasn’t using it, so it was actually a pretty easy choice and because I’m only using it for Facebook a lot of the concerns around having my browsing practices tracked are almost completely assuaged.   At least until Facebook learns to track across multiple browsers, that is.

Since I’m using Chrome as a dedicate Facebook browser, I decided to simply rely on the default install and change a number of the privacy settings, not something I would suggest if you use Chrome for other web browsing as well.  If you click on the wrench in the upper right hand corner of Chrome and select ‘settings’, it will open a new tab for the settings page.  At the bottom of the page is a link, “Show advanced settings…” which opens advance settings such as Privacy.  The ‘Content Settings’ button under Privacy opens up a new window, where the meat of the controls I wanted are.  I selected the following controls:

  • Cookies: Allow local data to be set for the current session only.
  • Cookies:  Clear cookies and other site plug-in data when I close my browser
  • Javascript:  Do not allow any site to run Javascript (You have to make exceptions for Facebook itself, https://[*.].facebook.com:443 and http://[*.].facebook.com)
  • Handlers:  Do not allow any site to handle protocols
  • Plug-ins: Click to play
  • Notifications:  Do not allow any site to show desktop notifications

There’s probably more I can do to protect myself from tracking, especially if I wanted to install some of the Chrome plug-ins specifically aimed at Facebook.  I’ve been using Facebook again for about a week or so.  I plan on using it more in the future for putting up some of the pictures I take during my world travels, to promote the podcast and to promote the work I do at Akamai.  I’m not really happy at getting sucked back into Facebook, but it isn’t really as evil as I sometimes make it out to be.  It is, however, a huge, faceless organization that is determined to make a profit off of me no matter what else happens.  

BTW, I do my banking on a completely separate computer that I do almost no other browsing on.  Or email or social media for that matter.

Additional links:

(*The new version of ‘privacy’ is controlling the information about you that flows onto the interwebz.  The pre-2000 view of privacy is dead, and even the new version is on life support with the data mining capabilities of many of our modern tools.)

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