Facebook privacy

I got into conversation last night with one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation who was in Dublin after attending Kilkenomics. This chance meeting prompted me to do a little surfing about the EFF and I found a browser fingerprint profiler that they have written which told me that my browser is unique amongst all the browsers it had tested.

Browser fingerprinting is a technique that web advertising and marketing companies use to identify individual people across many sites so that they can assemble a fuller profile of an individual from their browsing habits.

This type of privacy-compromise has been in the Irish news lately: Since last week, Billy Hawkes, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, has been investigating Facebook for potential privacy breaches. The Irish Data Protection Commissioner is tasked with this Europe-wide investigation because Facebook's European HQ is in Dublin.

One of the complaints registered against Facebook is that it is using "third-party cookies" to follow people around on the web, reporting back to Facebook exactly who has visited what site. Indeed, it has previously been found that "Like" buttons on sites were sending user information back to Facebook even when you were logged out. At the time the behaviour was reported, Facebook called it an accident. Yesterday it was discovered that this tracking cookie has been re-enabled by Facebook.

So today a couple of us had a look around to see how to disrupt these tracking cookies and we found a browser add-on called "Ghostery" which also claims to block other tracking mechanisms, such as invisible web-bugs.

It's interesting to look at who's looking at you. Here's Ghostery running on www.rte.ie:

RTE Ghostery

In RTE's case the sites that were blocked do not collect any data on you as an individual. They do collect what Ghostery calls "pseudonymous" information - i.e. your IP address, which in some circumstances may be enough to identify you specifically. But the agencies that monitor the RTE site are unlikely to try to figure out who you are from your IP address, so these tracking devices are far less disagreeable than Facebook - which knows exactly who you are.

Ghostery also blocks Facebook, so it will stop Mark Zuckerberg from spying on you (see him sweat about privacy here) as will a more lightweight plug-in called Disconnect.me.

By the way, Billy Hawkes the Data Commissioner doesn't seem to have a Facebook account :-/