Image: nanomanpro (Adobe Stock)

Co-written by Dan Goldstein & Adam Rowan

Facebook has more than 2 billion users active each month. But could that number start to drop?

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Amid privacy concerns raised by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s recent congressional testimony, #DeleteFacebook is becoming a mantra in the tech world. Facebook users “only” account for a little more than one-quarter of the world’s population, so the online data for a majority of people is safe, right?

Apparently not. According to Reuters, Zuckerberg told Congress that “Facebook also collects ‘data of people who have not signed up for Facebook.’”

Feeling the sting of Facebook security scandals?
Image: KHBlack (Adobe Stock)

Facebook’s data collection is like the Portuguese man-o’-war: Its long, trailing tentacles stretch much farther than unwitting prey might think. Most users understand that digital advertising runs on the concept of collecting user data and serving ads to users based on those data. However, in its zeal to deliver a “better” ad experience, Facebook may have exposed non-users to the predation of malicious companies who misuse their private data.

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So how can users who don’t even have a Facebook account protect their data and maintain their privacy?

How Facebook Tracks Non-Users

It doesn’t matter if you are logged out of Facebook, deleted your account, or have never used the platform. Facebook can still track you using cookies, or identifier data that communicates session information and preferences to the websites you visit.

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How does Facebook gather these data? “Like” and “Share” buttons aren’t just on Web pages to make it easy for you to share the great content you’re reading. They also communicate user information to Facebook, including your location, the browser you use, and more.

Scroll to the top of this article, and you’ll likely see one or both of these icons.

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New thumb war on Facebook data privacy | Modified by Adam Rowan
Graphic: Original image by James Steidl (Adobe Stock)

Zuckerberg told Congress — vaguely — that Facebook gathers non-user data for security purposes. However, the platform has been showing ads to non-users on websites outside of Facebook for years; it announced this expansion of its ad network, to seemingly little scrutiny, in 2016.

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Facebook makes billions of dollars in advertising revenue through its expansive ad network, both natively and across external websites. However, now that users, onlookers, and the media are concerned about the ease with which corporations can access seemingly private data and use it for malicious purposes, security and privacy issues are beginning to catch up to commercial applications.

How much online privacy you can reasonably expect is an ongoing debate. Most Facebook users understand and even value the way that Facebook can present them with timely and relevant sponsored posts. Now that online privacy awareness has become such a sensitive topic, Facebook enters Orwellian territory by gathering non-user data.

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How Non-Users Can Protect Their Data

Protect your personal data on Facebook
Image: Jacob Lund (Adobe Stock)

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Facebook users can adjust their privacy settings. They can also specify cookie usage and ad preferences. However, Facebook provides minimal recommendations for how non-users can protect themselves from intrusive data use and infringement on their privacy.

One of the most common recommendations is to opt out of display ads entirely through the Digital Advertising Alliance tool. Other options include script- and ad-blocker plugins you can install on your browser. Some browsers, such as the infamous Tor, are even dedicated to providing users with the ability to surf the Web anonymously and free from the prying eyes of Facebook and other advertisers.

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Clear browsing data screen in Google Chrome
Screenshot: Adam Rowan (Page 1 Solutions)

One simple, everyday step all users can take to limit the ads Facebook serves to them is to delete cookies as part of the “clear browser” function. By doing this, you will effectively start each browsing session with a clean slate — until you visit a page with a “Like” or “Share” option, and Facebook begins accessing your data once again.

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Unfortunately, disabling and deleting cookies can negatively impact other aspects of online browsing, including personalization, convenience, and overall user experience. In some ways, advertising is so enmeshed with the way the Internet works (commercially as well as functionally) that attempting to avoid data collection limits the accessibility of websites.

Users value their privacy. Many also value ads, as they connect consumers with brands and facilitate a deeper connection with their goods and services. But users should not have to choose between safely and securely surfing the Web and subjecting their private data to third parties with bad intentions.

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Why Facebook Data Collection Practices Are Bad for Non-Users

Facebook uses “lookalike targeting,” where it compares non-user data to data from actual users, to serve ads based on educated guesses about an audience who doesn’t actually have a profile on Facebook. It raises the eternal question: How well do you really know someone? But, in this context, it raises a bigger question: What right has Facebook (and other advertisers) to know users who abstain from the service?

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Someone who voluntarily uses an online service should reasonably expect that their interaction with the brand doesn’t end with a simple transaction. “Big Data” is big for a reason: The Internet provides businesses with unprecedented capabilities for customer engagement and retention, and Facebook is a major tool for doing just that.

Image: Ben (Adobe Stock)

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However, users who decidedly do not use Facebook should have a reasonable expectation of at least a modicum of privacy from Facebook.

Regulators in Europe have long sought to crack down on Facebook features that violate users’ privacy. In fact, earlier this year a court in Belgium ruled that Facebook’s non-user tracking is illegal. Now, some American lawmakers seem poised to follow suit.

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It would be a mistake to regulate companies like Facebook to prevent them from using their platforms to advertise to users. Such regulation would be contrary to the principles of a free market economy, and deprive users of the benefits of online ads. However, that doesn’t mean that no regulation is the answer.

The question is where to draw the line so that non-users’ data and privacy rights are respected without unduly limiting targeted advertising to users and consumers inside the network.

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Although Facebook is at the center of the current debate, other major companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple also surreptitiously gather user data, in some cases without the user’s express recognition or permission. Facebook’s response to the outcry — whether it revises the way it gathers data independently, or becomes subject to government regulation — will have repercussions for targeted online advertising as a whole.

For now, Facebook stands accused of violating the public trust on multiple fronts. Nothing exemplifies this better than the collection of data from Internet denizens who don’t even use the platform.