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posted by janrinok on Saturday February 03, @02:22AM   Printer-friendly

A Consumer Reports analysis looks at who is sending information about your online activity to Facebook

By now most internet users know their online activity is constantly tracked. No one should be shocked to see ads for items they previously searched for, or to be asked if their data can be shared with an unknown number of "partners."

But what is the scale of this surveillance? Judging from data collected by Facebook and newly described in a unique study by Consumer Reports (PDF), it's massive, and examining the data may leave you with more questions than answers.

Using a panel of 709 volunteers who shared archives of their Facebook data, Consumer Reports found that a total of 186,892 companies sent data about them to the social network. On average, each participant in the study had their data sent to Facebook by 2,230 companies. That number varied significantly, with some panelists' data listing over 7,000 companies providing their data. The Markup helped Consumer Reports recruit participants for the study. Participants downloaded an archive of the previous three years of their data from their Facebook settings, then provided it to Consumer Reports.

[...] Meta spokesperson Emil Vazquez defended the company's practices. "We offer a number of transparency tools to help people understand the information that businesses choose to share with us, and manage how it's used," wrote Vazquez in an emailed statement to The Markup.

While Meta does provide transparency tools like the one that enabled the study, Consumer Reports identified problems with them, including that the identity of many data providers is unclear from the names disclosed to users and that companies that provide services to advertisers are often allowed to ignore opt-out requests.

This article was copublished with The Markup, a nonprofit, investigative newsroom that challenges technology to serve the public good.

Consumer Reports

[Also Covered By]: Schneier on Security


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  • (Score: 1, Redundant) by Frosty Piss on Saturday February 03, @02:44AM (8 children)

    by Frosty Piss (4971) on Saturday February 03, @02:44AM (#1342892)

    If you are on the Intertubes in just about any way, even here at the illustrious bastion of personal privacy in a world of billions of people and monstrous data centers, why wouldn't people be watching us? Don't like it, go live up in the hills at the end of 10 miles of dirt road, there are in fact still a few off-grid hippie communes (and I'm certainly NOT talking about Slab City, which is VERY connected)...

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Runaway1956 on Saturday February 03, @05:55AM (2 children)

      by Runaway1956 (2926) Subscriber Badge on Saturday February 03, @05:55AM (#1342902) Journal

      Uh-huh. But, you can stop a lot of it. Block Facebook, block Google's crap, block all the ad servers, block Twitter - wow, look at that! You've blocked well over half of the tracking on the web already! Go ahead and block Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and you've got another big chunk of it. Don't sign up for random services for music, movies, and games. Now, you've got your own internet, where you can do banking, conduct business with government, pay your bills, send and receive email. Use a more secure browser for all of that, don't use Google Chrome. You do know how to lock down Firefox? Librewolf has pretty much done that for you, just download and use that. Check the addons - ublock origin, enable all the block lists, along with some other privacy addons. Or, you might consider Ungoogled Chrome - again use uBlock origin, and a few other privacy addons.

      You're right, you will not evade all surveillance. But you can reduce that surveillance by more than 90%.

      You know what's cool about the privacy addons? Most of them will tell you how many trackers they are blocking, on a site by site basis. I had a tab open earlier today that had 1300 trackers. I saw that, and looked a little harder. No, it wasn't 1300 trackers blocked in the past month, or past week, or whatever. It was actively blocking 1300 elements at that moment. I kinda skimmed down the list a little ways, it was unbelievable - but there it was. More than a thousand elements, mostly trackers. Oh yeah - make sure to block web fonts, don't load 3rd party images or scripts, it goes on and on.

      What's that? You think all that security makes the web unusable? Mehhh - some sites are broken completely. No problem. Other sites are partially broken. Again, no problem. Just move along, forget those sites, go elsewhere. Unless you WANT to trade all your data for frivolous entertainment. There's still an appreciable portion of the web that works. Go forth, and explore.

      • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 03, @05:51PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 03, @05:51PM (#1342971)

        The side benefit is how much faster it is. It doesn't matter how much bandwidth you have, the time to load ads is composed of hundreds of requests, each of which adds at least a ping time.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by corey on Monday February 05, @09:59PM

        by corey (2202) on Monday February 05, @09:59PM (#1343220)

        If you have a need for using Facebook or Google (I use Facebook occasionally as I live rural and it’s good to see what’s on the continuity Facebook page), then there is Facebook Container Tab addon, by Mozilla itself. It automatically enables a container when you load up Facebook so that the cookies and site data is kept there. I discovered just the other day that someone has forked that and made a Google Container Tabs addon.

        I also use Cookie Autodelete, that in my opinion is the second most important addon after uBlock Origin.

    • (Score: 5, Insightful) by Opportunist on Saturday February 03, @11:24AM (4 children)

      by Opportunist (5545) on Saturday February 03, @11:24AM (#1342944)

      An easier, and likely more effective, approach is to do what Pravda did back in the good old days. Mix enough bullshit into the data that in the end it becomes impossible to tell fact from fiction. Pravda did it to convince the West that Russia had more than they actually did, they told just enough truth to make the lies convincing. I do it to make the data that is collected about me worthless.

      I have a background in statistics. And the absolute worst thing you can do to a statistician is to mess with his data. Withholding data isn't that bad. So I have a smaller sample, not quite desirable, but still good to give you a useful statistical analysis, albeit with larger margin of error.

      What kills any statistics you might want to employ is if your dataset has been tampered with, "poisoned", as we called it. If you mix bogus data into good, and if you cannot tell bogus from clean, the only thing you can do with the data is to throw it out. It's worthless if you cannot use it to create a reliable (even within margin of error reliable) record.

      It's like when people complain how old recorded data is worthless because of measuring errors. It's not. Yes, you have to apply a larger margin of error because the instruments used to record them were not as precise as the instruments we have today, but within their margin of error, those measurements are valid. If you have reason to assume that the collection of the data itself was forged, though, the record is indeed worthless.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05, @10:40AM (2 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 05, @10:40AM (#1343089)
        People who freely supply correct data in order to use stuff on the Internet are about as unready for the Internet as those "blessed children" who don't lie about their age and get turned away by porn sites.

        Supply what you need to, and lie about the rest. Use a throwaway email address if you can.
        • (Score: 2) by Opportunist on Monday February 05, @01:46PM (1 child)

          by Opportunist (5545) on Monday February 05, @01:46PM (#1343122)

          No. Even supply a lie where you need to. It's quite easy to build a fake persona on the internet. One of my names is Hunde Anleinen. He's a carpenter, living in Helsinki, Finland. And yes, that joke's one for the Germans in the audience, weirdly enough nobody has ever raised any concerns about it ("Hunde anleinen" is German for "dogs have to be put on a leash").

          You cancel that account? No biggie. I have more. It's not like any of them is worth anything or important. All they do is grant me access to whatever resources you can only get if you have an account with the site in question. And yes, they all live a very vibrant life, a lot of them have a lot of "friends". I'm fairly sure most of them are fake accounts as well, I mean, why would anyone want to be friends with Hunde with the reason that "she met him in a bar around town"?

          So, basically, fake accounts verify each other and the whole data collection is a bunch of garbage.

          And ain't this what we're aiming at?

          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 08, @06:58AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 08, @06:58AM (#1343596)

            No. Even supply a lie where you need to.

            I think you misunderstand the meaning of need.

            How am I supposed to use SMS verification if I give a fake phone number?

            I could use a different phone number from my main one, but it still has to be a working one, I can't lie about it and make one up. And there are obvious scenarios where using a "free SMS site" is a bad idea.

      • (Score: 2) by corey on Monday February 05, @10:04PM

        by corey (2202) on Monday February 05, @10:04PM (#1343222)

        That’s interesting. Do you have any pointers for the rest of us on poisonings data (other than the obvious occasional search for random stuff, browse random weird websites etc?

        It would be interesting to use this concept to poison a LLM (“AI”) system with spurious data, then they’d have to can it and retrain it from scratch? If it was extensive enough.

  • (Score: 1) by kboodu on Monday February 05, @06:20AM

    by kboodu (38701) on Monday February 05, @06:20AM (#1343057)

    Is anyone truly surprised? Facebook collects data (as does Google, Apple, Microsoft and others) and then turns around and markets advertisers based on some category of information. And they in turn send data back to the organization that sold them to confirm the "quality" of the data. This has been going on for decades and the companies have only gathered more data to better market to us. We are the commodity (or product) as well as the ads that are shown to us. No one should be surprised.

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