You’ve probably heard discussions about Facebook being a treasure trove for stalkers. And sure, the social networking behemoth might not be the best place to post all your private information; but hey, it’s all self-contained, so what’s the harm? Once you leave you go back to being just another anonymous Internet user, right? Well, sorry to disappoint, but the world's largest social network isn’t just a forum for potential stalking – it’s actually a stalker itself, and a pretty obsessive one at that.
A new report by USA Today paints an alarming picture of the lengths to which Facebook goes to track you, and when considered alongside the company’s ongoing negotiations with the Federal Trade Commission, it makes privacy advocates like the ACLU take notice. It’s one of the reasons that we’ve sent our own letter to the FTC requesting an investigation, and it’s starting to raise a lot of eyebrows, so let’s walk through a simple example illustrating the depth of the tracking operation:
Say a friend of yours tells you about all the cool articles she’s been reading on the new ACLU of Maine Facebook page and suggests you check it out and “like” it yourself. You oblige, and after glancing through our most recent postings and clicking the “like button” – because it is after all the best way to stay up-to-date on all the latest civil liberties news in Maine – you go along your digital day and continue surfing around the rest of the Internet. One might assume that your transaction with Facebook has ended – that whatever basic information they got from you when you visited their site, such as your IP address, browser type, etc., was the final chapter in your dealings with them. That, I’m afraid, would be a poor assumption.
See, when you visited Facebook, your computer was implanted with a pair of “cookies.” Now this is nothing unusual; many websites use cookies and they have plenty of useful purposes. You’ve likely got hundreds of them on your computer as we speak. But what Facebook does is unique. As you browse around the rest of the Internet, these cookies alert Facebook every time you visit a website that has a “like button” or some other Facebook social plug-in – and in case you haven’t noticed, a lot of websites have plug-ins from Facebook, often tucked away where you don’t even see them.
This process of tracking allows Facebook to assemble an amazingly comprehensive picture of your Internet habits, which they keep on file for a full 90 days. What news stories do you read? Which politicians do you support? Where are you thinking of traveling? Answers to these seemingly private questions are all of a sudden stashed away in a database, and you have no control over this new mosaic of information that has been created about you. Think you can avoid being tracked simply by logging out of your account? Think again. In fact, you don't even need an account at all; Facebook is an equal opportunity stalker, and it'll follow all visitors, regardless of whether they're logged in or not.

So what can you do about it? How can we stop this massive privacy invasion? One of the simplest solutions is preventative legislation known as “Do Not Track,” and we’ve been pushing it strongly here at the ACLU. There has been some progress of late towards the technical implementation of “Do Not Track,”  but there is still a ways to go, and we need to make sure that companies like Facebook and Google are complying. In order to push the process along, we’ve created an online petition form where you can tell Congress directly that it’s time to pass robust Internet privacy protections, including "Do Not Track" legislation and other protections to prevent the unfettered collection and dissemination of Internet users' personal information.
Facebook may be the most glaring example of online tracking, but it surely does not stand alone. By passing legislation which specifically outlaws this sort of behavior we can make sure that our private Internet surfing habits remain as they ought to be:  private.
And that’s something we can all “like.”