Facebook explains how it tracks non-consenting users

US lawmakers have once again criticised Facebook’s behaviour, after the company explained how it continues to track users after they explicitly forbid it.

Previously, a group of senators had submitted a letter to Facebook about user location tracking, including demanding that the social media behemoth explains how it collects data on user location, and the extent to which users continue to be tracked even when they opt out of tracking.

Writing to Democrat Christopher Coons and Republican Josh Hawley, Facebook deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, admitted that Facebook has measures in place to continue to track users even after they have turned off location services (GPS) on their phone. According to Sherman, Facebook deduces location from users’ IP addresses and their interactions with Facebook (for instance, if they confirm their attendance at events with a specified location via a Facebook event, ‘check in' at attractions, or receive a tag in a photo or status linked to a location).

These methods allow for less precise tracking than what is possible when users explicitly consent to tracking via GPS, typically restricted to city or postal code area.

“When location services [are] off, Facebook may still understand people’s locations using information people share through their activities on Facebook or through IP addresses and other network connections they use,” he wrote to the Senators, in a letter obtained by The Hill.

Facebook has a dedicated team of engineers responsible for managing and analysing data which could inform the company of approximate user location via an internal API.

Facebook has profited from these practices, Sherman said, having targeted almost all ads “by necessity” based on user location. This is done even when location tracking is switched off. Sherman said that other services provided through this location tracking included customised weather reports, offers from Facebook Marketplace, and nearby friend suggestions.

Hawley – a prominent critic of the ‘tech giants’ – and Coons have criticised Facebook for profiting via these arguably invasive means. Writing on Twitter, Hawley commented: “Facebook admits it. Turn off 'location services' and they’ll STILL track your location to make money (by sending you ads). There is no opting out. No control over your personal information. That’s Big Tech. And that’s why Congress needs to take action.”

In a statement, Coons said that: “I am concerned that [Facebook’s efforts to be transparent] are insufficient and even misleading in light of how Facebook is actually treating user data […] Facebook claims that users are in control of their own privacy, but in reality, users aren’t even given an option to stop Facebook from collecting and monetising their location information.”

Facebook has been heavily criticised in past years for its own privacy-invading practices – such as tracking a user’s browsing activity via the ‘pixel’ embedded in other web pages – and for failing to prevent privacy-invading practices by third parties like Cambridge Analytica.

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