Facebook admits Beacon tracks logged-off users

Contradicts recent assurances by executives that ad service won't track off-site activities

Facebook Inc. has confirmed a CA Inc. security researcher's  findings that the social networking site's Beacon ad service is more intrusive than previously acknowledged, an admission that contradicts statements made earlier by Facebook executives and representatives.

Facebook's controversial Beacon ad system tracks the activities of its users even if they are logged off from the social networking site and have previously declined the option of having their activities on specific external sites broadcast to their Facebook friends, a company spokesman said via e-mail.

Although the spokesman said that Facebook deletes the data without using it, the admission will probably fan the flames of criticism of the service by privacy advocates.

The Facebook spokesman did not initially reply to a request for further explanation on how the Beacon action gets triggered if a user is logged off from Facebook, when the social networking site's ability to track its users' activities should be inactive.

It's also unclear whether Facebook plans to modify Beacon so it doesn't track and report on the activities of logged-off users.

Beacon is a key part of the Facebook Ads platform introduced by the social networking firm with much fanfare several weeks ago. Beacon tracks certain activities of Facebook users on more than 40 participating Web sites, including those of online retailers Blockbuster and Fandango, and it reports those activities to the users' Facebook friends, unless told not to do so.

Off-Facebook activities that can be broadcast to one's Facebook friends include purchasing a product and signing up for a service.

The program has been blasted by advocacy groups like MoveOn.org, and by individual users whose recent purchases and other Web activities have been transmitted to their Facebook friends. This has led to some embarrassing situations, such as blowing the surprise of holiday presents.

Last Thursday night, Facebook tweaked Beacon to make its workings more explicit to users and to make it easier to nix broadcast messages and opt out of having activities tracked on specific Web sites. Facebook didn't go as far as providing a general opt-out option for the entire Beacon program, as some had hoped.

Then, on Friday, just hours after Facebook had scored some points with its modifications to Beacon, Stefan Berteau, a senior research engineer at CA's Threat Research Group, blogged on CA's Web site about Beacon's until-then unknown ability to monitor logged-off users' activities and send the data back to Facebook.

Users aren't informed that data on their activities at these sites is flowing back to Facebook, nor are they given the option to block that information from being transmitted, according to Berteau.

If users have ever checked the option for Facebook to "remember me" -- which saves users from having to log onto the site upon every return to it -- Facebook can tie their activities on third-party Beacon sites directly to them, even if they're logged off and have opted out of the broadcast. If they have never chosen this option, the information still flows back to Facebook, although without it being tied to their Facebook ID, according to Berteau.

Facebook's admission over the weekend contradicts its previous statements regarding this issue. For example, in e-mail correspondence with Facebook's privacy department, Berteau was told, among other things, that "as long as you are logged out of Facebook, no actions you have taken on other websites can be sent to Facebook."

A similar statement was made by a high-ranking Facebook official in an interview published in The New York Times last week.

"If I buy tickets on Fandango, and decline to publish the purchase to my friends on Facebook, does Facebook still receive the information about my purchase?" a Times reporter asked Chamath Palihapitiya, vice president of product marketing and operations at Facebook. "Absolutely not," Palihapitiya replied. "One of the things we are still trying to do is dispel a lot of misinformation that is being propagated unnecessarily."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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