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Facebook's Clear History Privacy Option: Boon or Sop?

By John P. Mello Jr.
May 3, 2018 10:28 AM PT
Facebook will offer users a clear history tool to prevent tracking of their online activity outside the network

Facebook plans to offer members a tool that to prevent tracking of their online activity outside the network.

The Clear History feature will allow users to see which websites and applications send Facebook information when they use them, delete the data and prevent Facebook from collecting and storing it in the future.

Although that information would not be associated with a user's account, it still would be used in anonymized form to provide website operators and app developers with analytics about Facebook users use of their wares.

"It will take a few months to build Clear History," wrote Facebook Chief Privacy Officer Erin Egan in a Tuesday post.

"We'll work with privacy advocates, academics, policymakers and regulators to get their input on our approach, including how we plan to remove identifying information and the rare cases where we need information for security purposes," she said.

"We've already started a series of roundtables in cities around the world," Egan added, "and heard specific demands for controls like these at a session we held at our headquarters two weeks ago."

Hunting for Wins

While Clear History is a step toward securing more privacy for Facebook's members, it remains to be seen how significant it will be.

"It's obviously a step in the right direction, but I see it as more of a PR move than a transformation of how Facebook is operating," said Vincent Raynauld, an assistant professor in the department of communication studies at Emerson College.

"Facebook at this moment is looking for wins, because its brand has lost some of its shine," he told TechNewsWorld. "This delivers a clear PR win, but additional steps need to be made to truly protect users' privacy."

This is a smart move for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, noted John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University.

"He's been taking so much heat lately that he needed to do something, as opposed to just saying something," he told TechNewsWorld.

Privacy Placebo

Clear History is a good first step toward better privacy at Facebook, said Jason I. Hong, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. However, the greater concern is which parties can see a user's data and what they can do with it.

"This feature also puts the burden of privacy on individuals, who are already overwhelmed with the number of features available on Facebook," he told TechNewsWorld.

"It gives sites like Facebook an easy excuse for saying that they are doing something about privacy, but the likely scenario is that few people will know about this feature and use it in practice," he pointed out.

"I call features like this 'privacy placebos,'" Hong added, "because they make some people feel better about privacy when in practice it often does very little about actually improving privacy."

Devil in the Details

Until Facebook releases its Clear History tool, it's impossible to gauge how users will react to it. Zuckerberg already has warned that the Facebook experience could be degraded for anyone who activates the feature.

"Letting users reset their profiles is a net positive, and echoes similar tools to reset advertising identifiers on mobile OSes," said Joseph W. Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology.

"It's a good alternative to a complete account kill switch," he told TechNewsWorld. "We'll have to see where the setting is located and how easy it is to access."

Clear History addresses one particular privacy concern of Facebook users, said Lorrie Faith Cranor, director of the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon.

"However, this does not address privacy concerns people have about other aspects of their Facebook use, such as their interactions with the platform and other users on Facebook itself," she told TechNewsWorld.

GDPR Anxiety

All social platforms no doubt harbor concerns about the tough privacy rules that will take effect later this month under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, Carroll noted.

"They're worried about strong privacy gaining a foothold in Europe and drifting across the Atlantic and landing here," he said.

The GDPR, threat of congressional action, and just plain bad PR has had an impact on Facebook, according to Carroll. "It's led them to do more than just say, 'I'm sorry, and I won't do it again.'"

Facebook will have to wait and see if Clear History will be sufficient to keep European regulators at bay, said Danny O'Brien, international director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The new GDPR rules coming into force on May 25 require not just these capabilities -- to see, delete and turn off tracking -- but also proactive consent from users," he told TechNewsWorld. "Will Facebook start asking permission to begin this tracking? Or will the default be to keep collecting this data?"


John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.


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