Earlier this week, rainbow-faced Facebook users everywhere went into a state of panic over the fact that Facebook “didn’t deny” tracking who was using its new “Celebrate Pride” tool. Panic at the idea that a powerful multibillion-dollar corporation is tracking certain of your behaviors is totally natural, obviously. So get ready to panic a little bit further. Facebook is always tracking you.
You may have seen the articles published over the last few days revealing that over 26 million people used Facebook’s “Celebrate Pride” app to add a rainbow overlay to their profile pictures (in order to, you know, celebrate pride). How did Facebook get that number? By tracking its users. As our sister site (where, full disclosure, I guess, I used to work) Gizmodo revealed (after being being told by Facebook that “this was not an experiment or a test”): “The clarification sounds more like a confirmation that the social network is tracking people who use the tool. Facebook used the word ‘not’ three times but still did not deny tracking.”
No shit. Facebook made a sub-product within its larger product. You used it. Of course it knows that.
At this point, this really shouldn’t even have to be explained. But considering the slew of breathless blog posts trying to raise the alarm, allow us to reemphasize: Facebook doesn’t just know that you added colors to your profile photo using the tool it created. Facebook also knows who your friends are. Facebook knows when you were born. Facebook knows what movies and books you like. Facebook knows what your politics are. And Facebook knows what genders you like to sleep with. And in many cases Facebook knows these things even when you don’t explicitly tell it.
If you use Facebook, Facebook is “tracking” you. Facebook has entered your profile, no matter how anonymized, into its enormous database, and it is cross-referencing your movements—the pages you “like,” the statuses you read, the time you spend on links, the photos you pause over—against those of millions of other users. If researchers can predict your sexuality, religion, race, and political affiliation to near 90-percent accuracy without direct access to Facebook data, how accurately do you think Facebook can describe you with it?
By now, we should all be fully aware that every action we take on Facebook is being tracked, tabulated, monitored for any number of reasons—many to all of them unsavory, depending on your level of tolerance for data-mining on the behalf of advertisers.
In this case specifically, there are a couple obvious ways Facebook could be using this information: 1) It could be using the Celebrate Pride data as a way to target future ads (which it’s confirmed it’s not doing), or, 2), it could be using the Celebrate Pride data as a way to extrapolate information about its users (which it has confirmed it is not doing). But expecting a company not to keep track of whether people are using its products is naive if not mildly insane.
Because ultimately Facebook is not a public utility, owned in common by the people who use it. It’s free, sure, but the company itself is for profit, the vast majority of it owned by a small handful of people. Facebook is not providing you the service of connecting to your friends and your photographs—it is providing advertisers the service of connecting them to you and your friends. So if that doesn’t bother you enough to delete your account entirely, don’t be surprised when Facebook pursues its so far extremely profitable business plan and tracks its product: You.