Facebook Privacy Concerns: How to Protect Yourself

Facebook's homepage and terms of use. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook is once again tangled in the Web of online privacy concerns after the company acknowledged it uses tracking cookies to store users browsing information.

Feeling a little intimated by all this cookie jargon? Here’s a quick review:

What is a cookie? In the Internet world, a tracking cookie is not a sugary snack, but a little bit of computer code that allows websites to communicate with your web browser. When you visit a website, it sends a cookie to your browser and your browser stores it.

Cookies can remember passwords for you, save your preferences, track your online shopping cart contents — even see that since you bought those golf balls for your father on Amazon.com, you might be interested to know that other users who bought those golf balls also looked at pages for golf tees, golf bags and golf gloves.

While they often get a bad rap, cookies cannot cause or spread viruses and are usually very helpful to users as they surf the Internet. Most websites use them now.

Then there are…

Supercookies.” Much like their regular cookie cousins, supercookies track user preferences and browsing history. The difference is that supercookies are often very hard to detect and remove. They secretly collect data from users, beyond what regular cookies may, and often raise privacy concerns.

OK, so what’s the big deal? The recent controversial issue raised with Facebook — as well as other Internet giants such as Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Adobe and Microsoft in years past — is that the company has acknowledged that it uses supercookies to monitor Facebook’s 800 million users’ web browsing activities, and non-members, even after they leave the site. It said it keeps a log of that data for up to 90 days.

Put more simply, once someone visits Facebook, the site then tracks every other web page that person visits for the next three months.

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Facebook has long contended that it uses the browsing information to tailor its online advertising, but privacy advocates worry that Facebook could access more personal information about users and sell that information for other means.

New online privacy guidelines are being discussed now in Congress and by the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets standards for the Internet, in part because of this issue.

Steps for Protecting Yourself From Supercookies:

PCWorld, a computer trade magazine, suggests that you can safeguard your online privacy with third-party software that blocks supercookies, such as SlimCleaner for Windows operating systems and  BetterPrivacy or  NoScript for Firefox browsers. All three are free downloads and also have Mac-compatible versions.

Steps for Removing “Regular” Cookies:

It’s important to remember that deleting cookies may also delete saved preferences on your web browser (such as automatic login information).

NOTE: This will NOT stop your browser from accepting cookies from Facebook, just delete the cookies that are currently there, so you have to repeat this process again when you visit the site.

On FireFox or Internet Explorer:

1. Under the Tools menu at the top of your Internet window, click on Internet Options (In Firefox, it is labeled as Options. For Mac users it will be labeled as Preferences).

2. Select the Privacy tab.

3. Click on “remove individual cookies.” You should get a pop-up window.

4. In the pop-up window, type “Facebook” into the search bar.

5. Select the Facebook cookies by holding the Shift key and clicking each one.

6. Click Remove Cookies, then click OK to close the Options window.

On Google Chrome:

1. Click the wrench icon on the top right corner of your browser.

2. Select Options (Preferences on Mac).

3. Click the Under the Hood tab.

4. Click Content settings in the “Privacy” section.

5. Click the Cookies tab in the Content Settings dialog.

6. Click Delete Cookies

7. You can remove all cookies in this view, but to delete a specific cookie, click on the site that issued the cookie, (for Facebook, you’ll see the URL), then click on the cookie that shows in the drop down view, and click Remove.

You can also set Chrome to delete cookies automatically when you close all browser windows by selecting the “Clear cookies and other site data when I close my browser” box in the Content Settings dialog.

On Safari (for Mac Users):

1. From the Safari menu at the top of the browser window, click on Preferences.

2. Under Security, click on Bookmarks.

3. Under Accept Cookies, “only from sites you navigate to” should be checked. Click Show Cookies

4. From the pop-up Cookies window, click on any Facebook references (use the Shift key to select multiple ones) then click Remove.

5. Click Done.