I thought deactivating my Facebook account would stop the social network from tracking me online. But Facebook kept tabs on me anyway.
Over the past year, I've tried to minimize my presence on Facebook. I deleted a 10-year-old account and replaced it with a dummy account that I use as little as possible. I deleted the app from my phone.
As of January, I started deactivating my dummy account every time I used it, rather than just log out. I couldn't break up completely with Facebook because I needed it to sign up twice a week for a workshop.
I thought the precautions would reduce how much data Facebook gathered about me. Turns out, I was wasting my time.
Even when your account is deactivated, the social network continues collecting data about your online activities. All that data gets sent back to Facebook and is tied to your account while it's in this state of limbo. It's as if you'd changed nothing.
Facebook says it only removes all of your data if you permanently delete your account. Deactivating isn't as extreme, the company says, and the social network continues collecting your data in case you change your mind and want to return to your profile. Facebook expects deactivated users to return and wants to continue serving them ads relevant to their new interests.
'A deceptive practice'
On the site, Facebook explains that deactivating is a half-step to complete deletion. But it says little about how data collection works during the period. In its data policy, Facebook suggests deactivation to manage your privacy but doesn't mention that it still collects data during that period.
The ongoing collection of data from deactivated accounts could be considered misleading, privacy experts warn.
"Most people would expect less or no data collection during a deactivated period," said Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and founder of private search engine DuckDuckGo. "Deactivated means cease to operate, and you wouldn't expect all the wheels to be turning."
The average person would assume that Facebook pauses data collection when your account is deactivated, said Kathleen McGee, the former chief of the New York State attorney general's Internet Bureau.
People could look at deactivating accounts and mistake it for an opt-out when it isn't, she explained.
"For consumer transparency purposes, I would be concerned that this is a deceptive practice," said McGee, now a technology counsel at the Lowenstein Sandler law firm.
The vague disclosure the social network provides is another point of concern about its privacy protections.
In March 2018, Facebook found itself in hot water after Cambridge Analytica, a British consultancy, was collecting information about people on the social network through several personality quizzes. The backlash prompted a campaign encouraging people to delete their Facebook accounts. The Pew Research Center found that 42 percent of Americans have taken a break from the social network at some point during the last year.
Facebook already monitors online activity, including the browsing habits of members who have logged out or people who don't have accounts. In the latter case, the social network doesn't have the names of individuals but can still customize ads based on browsing. It does this with tools like Facebook Pixel and plugins such as the Share button on pages.
The social network's Share button is on 275 million web pages. It collects data allowing advertisers to see what kind of content you're viewing. That's why you're likely to see ads for sports in your Facebook feed if you've been visiting a lot of sports websites.
If you aren't a member, the social network can follow your activity through your browsers and deliver ads using its Facebook Audience Network, the company detailed in 2016. The service uses your browsing habits to target ads as you surf the internet, just as it would if you were on Facebook. Even if you don't have an account, Facebook is following you.
Facebook said deactivating your account was never intended to be a measure for data privacy but rather for privacy from other people on Facebook.
It makes sense to deactivate your account if you're trying to hide from people online because other users won't see your profile, posts and previous comments. You're essentially invisible to everyone on the social network. Except Facebook. It does nothing to prevent Facebook from collecting data on you.
Your best bet to stop the data collection is to delete your account. You'll get 30 days to change your mind. During that period, Facebook will continue gathering data about you, the company said.
Weinberg suggested that Facebook either change its data collection for deactivated accounts or explain that caveat better to people.
"Companies should always try to match user expectations to whatever feature they're providing," Weinberg said.
Surprising consumers is usually a cause for alarm for regulators, McGee said. With Facebook failing to explicitly explain that your data is still being collected, even when your account is deactivated, the former prosecutor argued, a reasonable consumer is being misled.
"Facebook should remedy this by not collecting information when someone has deactivated their account," McGee said.