Officials monitor visuals inside a control room. (Photographer: Henner Frankenfeld / Bloomberg News)

Even Privacy Advocates Are Tracking You Online

Subscribe to Bloomberg | Quint
The Daily Newsletter
News & Stock Alerts

(Bloomberg) -- The primary purpose of Californians for Consumer Privacy, an advocacy group formed by San Francisco real estate developer Alastair Mactaggart, is to push for a ballot initiative adding restrictions on companies that profit from the collection of personal data. Last week, it gave state officials a petition with over 600,000 signatures, which should be enough to get it in front of voters in November. 

Its website, CAPrivacy.org, is pretty much what you’d expect. There are creepy fictional videos portraying people's  birth date, physical location, and potentially embarrassing info about their online purchases (hair loss prevention shampoo) and the apps they use (online poker).  Below the videos, there’s a motivating message: “It’s your personal information. Take back control!”  

There is one surprising aspect, though. Each time someone visits, software gleans what information it can about her, then sends that information to Facebook, including her IP address, what web pages she was on before and after visiting, and so on. At this point, both the visitor and the website have basically lost control of what happens with that information. 

That means the group has something in common with a lot of other sites. At least 79 percent of websites globally have one or more trackers that collect data on their users’ online behavior, according to a 2017 study by Ghostery, a company that makes ad blockers and privacy software. Over 21 percent have more than 10 trackers. Google trackers run 60 percent of the time any web page loads; Facebook’s run 27 percent of the time. Both companies have trackers running on CAPrivacy.org, because the group put them there. It may be hard to find a clearer testament to how entrenched such tracking has become as the default setting of the entire internet. 

Californians for Consumer Privacy does disclose the existence of the trackers in its privacy policy, which Mactaggart says he wrote himself. “The irony of criticizing Facebook and Google whilst using their services is not lost on us, but this gets back to our rationale for the initiative: Californians should be able to use these services and be secure that their personal information is not being sold. Right now this is not possible,” it reads. Mactaggart argues that Google and Facebook are monopolies and there’s no real choice for someone looking to run an effective website or online advertising campaign. “We end up with this Faustian bargain,” he said. 

Websites can exist without partnering with Google and Facebook. But few do—because their tools are really useful. It helps that they’re free and easy to use. The Facebook tracker consists of just nine lines of Javascript code. By installing it, website operators can determine whether people who saw their Facebook ads visited their site, and can target people after they’ve left. At the same time, they let Facebook collect information about their users. The company deploys this data to build the profiles it uses to help other advertisers target web users with specific profiles—and further entrench itself at the center of the internet economy. 

Facebook’s critics, Californians for Consumer Privacy included, like to rail about the sale of personal data. But, as Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly pointed out during Congressional hearings last month, Facebook’s business isn’t about selling personal data. An advertiser can’t simply purchase a list of names and IP addresses. Think of it more as a barter system. Websites share data to gain the ability to target ads, or learn more about their own audiences. Facebook pixel, a tool for advertisers and developers, collects information like a user’s IP address, available demographic information, and location data. Then the company sells ads that can be targeted using that data.

The inability of websites to resist the temptation of these tools is vital to Facebook’s and Google’s domination of the internet—and a big part of how they’ve gathered so much information about practically every person online. “Everyone is using Google Analytics, and everyone is using the Facebook pixel,” said Praneet Sharma, the chief executive of Method Media Intelligence, an ad tech consultancy.

Both Facebook and Google oppose Mactaggart’s ballot measure, although Facebook recently withdrew from a coalition actively pushing for its defeat. Facebook has also been trying to reassure people that it will offer them more control over their data. It says it’s building a tool that would allow users to view which websites send data, then clear that history. But any big changes to the default setting of the internet as Facebook and Google have built it up aren’t going to be easy to come by. “It’s just web architecture,” said Sharma. “Privacy was an afterthought.” 

This article also ran in Bloomberg Technology’s Fully Charged newsletter. Sign up here.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

Bloomberg
Stay Updated With Tech News On BloombergQuint
Subscribe to Bloomberg | Quint
The Daily Newsletter
News & Stock Alerts