Facebook's Clear History Tools Won't Actually Delete Your Data

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Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Facebook introduced a set of tools, including the long-awaited Clear History setting, that will give users new ways to control information that the company collects about them when they go to other websites. As privacy experts note, however, the tools do not allow you to delete such information.

The settings—which will be found under a menu called “Off-Facebook Activity”—will provide users with a summary of information collected via third-party apps and websites that use Facebook’s various trackers, such as the like button. More important, it will let people “disconnect” that data from their Facebook accounts so that the company will no longer be able to use that information for targeted ads.

However, Facebook will still be able to harness data, such as your browsing history, search terms, and online purchases, for other business purposes.

According to Facebook, the Off-Facebook Activity controls will roll out first to users in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain, and will come to those in other countries over the next few months.

“This is another way to give people more transparency and control on Facebook,” the company said in a blog post.

Users can also choose to automatically disconnect off-Facebook data the company collects going forward. Facebook will still get to track you across the internet, but the company won’t tie what it learns to your social media profile—or any of your devices.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg first promised the Clear History setting more than a year ago in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. “It will be a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook—what you’ve clicked on, websites you’ve visited, and so on,” Zuckerberg wrote in May 2018.

Once you use the Clear History tool, the data won’t be used to inform ads on Facebook or its other products, such as Instagram or Messenger. However, it may be used in other ways, such as in analytics reports for other websites and for providing advertisers with information about the effectiveness of their campaigns, a spokesperson said.

Still, the Off-Facebook Activity controls will give users an unprecedented view of the information the company collects through channels—such as the Facebook Pixel, Facebook Login, and like buttons scattered across the internet—that harvest data whether or not you interact with them.

“Third-party tracking is the original sin of the web,” said Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports, one of a number of experts Facebook consulted about the tools over the last year. “There are some shortcomings here, but giving consumers the ability to separate that tracking from their real names is a major step in the right direction.”

But experts, including Brookman, say the new tools don’t go far enough to give consumers the control they deserve. 

“You should be able to delete this data entirely and stop Facebook from collecting it in the first place,” he said. “Given the scope of the problem, there’s still a need for regulatory action from policymakers.”

The onus remains on consumers to protect their privacy, according to Casey Oppenheim, co-founder of data security firm Disconnect. “Facebook isn’t making any changes to what it does with your information by default, and that’s a big deal,” he said. “Most people don’t log on to Facebook just to monkey around with their settings. Each additional step users have to take makes it less likely that they’ll actually use these tools.”

According to a Facebook spokesperson, the company welcomes the feedback. “We have described this from the start as a control that people can choose to use, and that’s where we have focused,” the spokesperson said.

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