Facebook has had a pretty tight relationship with advertisers over the last few years, and now it's cuddling up even tighter.
The social network is testing a new tool for advertisers that lets companies track you and your shopping habits based on your non-Facebook online activities — and it's not easy to opt out of it entirely.
At present, advertisers on Facebook can track and target you via your profile, email address and phone number.
Under the new program being tested on some Facebook members, advertisers will be able to track you outside of Facebook as well.
Facebook explains two potential scenarios by way of example. In the first one, you visit a custom bicycle retailer's website, create a profile, start designing a bike and stop halfway. This advertiser can now track you back to Facebook and hit you with ads requesting that you come back and complete your purchase.
Alternatively, app developers can see if you've downloaded an app and haven't used it in a while (or at all). They can then send Facebook ads your way encouraging you to boot up the app and perhaps pump some money into it — perhaps a game with microtransactions, such as "Plants vs. Zombies 2."
The bad news is that once the change goes into effect (it will roll out slowly over the next few months), Facebook will automatically start funneling your data to advertisers.
The good news is that you have the ability to opt out of Custom Audiences, but it takes a little work.
If you start seeing ads that appear to be following you to Facebook from other websites and apps, you'll see an "About this ad" button that you can click.
Doing so will tell you how the advertiser tracked you, and allow you to opt out of seeing future ads from only that retailer, or give you a link to the page that lets you opt out of the Custom Audiences cross-website tracking tool entirely.
However, because Custom Audiences relies on browser-tracking cookies, you'll have to opt out of the program on every browser on every computer, smartphone or tablet you use. If you clear cookies, you'll have to do it again.
Keep in mind that if you belong to Facebook, you already allow this exchange of information in reverse. By signing up for an account, you agree to Facebook's terms of service, which allow advertisers to track you (as part of a group, not individually) and retain your information to craft ads that target you as you travel across the Internet.
Facebook wrote up a primer on this new functionality for users, insisting that it would be both beneficial and anonymous. The primer points out that the Custom Audiences tool could send users coupons based on the stores they frequent, and reminds them that Facebook aggregates user data and ultimately decides who sees which ads.
In theory, this keeps user data safe from intrusion. Additionally, even with indirect access to Facebook profiles, email addresses and phone numbers — the advertisers don't see your name, just an internal Facebook ID — it's not worth an advertiser's time to track down individual customers. Still, if you object, opt out.
In particular, teens should be wary of what advertisers know about them. In September, Facebook updated its terms of service to let advertisers use members' names, profile pictures and personal information in their Facebook ads. This applied to both teens and adults alike.
Although Facebook said it would reconsider the issue, it has yet to take any action prohibiting teens from showing up in advertisements.
It has, however, opted to give teens the ability to share their profiles publicly, a change Facebook announced yesterday (Oct. 16).
Until yesterday, Facebook members under 18 could post and share content only with their friends or friends of friends. Now, like adults, teens can now choose to make their profiles — or any individual part of them — open and available to the public. (The default is friends-only.)
Whether this is a good or bad idea depends on the individual teen, but making a profile public makes it much easier for advertisers to find, quantify and track them.
Facebook's raison d'être is to provide a convenient social network for the largest number of people possible, but that doesn't come free.
Ads are the easiest way for the company to make money, and unless it discovers another method of procuring revenue, it's unlikely to dial back its sometimes questionable advertising practices.
Either find another social network, or learn to live with getting curiously specific advertisements wherever you go online.