Meet ‘Link History,’ Facebook’s New Way to Track the Websites You Visit

Photo: Michael Reynolds (Getty Images)
Photo: Michael Reynolds (Getty Images)

Facebook recently rolled out a new “Link History” setting that creates a special repository of all the links you click on in the Facebook mobile app. Users can opt-out, but Link History is turned on by default, and the data is used for targeted ads. As lawmakers introduce tech regulations and Apple and Google beef up privacy restrictions, Meta is doubling down and searching for new ways to preserve its data harvesting empire.

The company pitches Link History as a useful tool for consumers “with your browsing activity saved in one place,” rather than another way to keep tabs on your behavior. With the new setting you’ll “never lose a link again,” Facebook says in a pop-up encouraging users to consent to the new tracking method. The company goes on to mention that “When you allow link history, we may use your information to improve your ads across Meta technologies.”

Read more

When you click on a link in the Facebook or Instagram apps, the website loads in a special browser built into the app, rather than your phone’s default browser. In 2022, privacy researcher Felix Krause found that Meta injects special “keylogging” JavaScript onto the website you’re visiting that allows the company to monitor everything you type and tap on, including passwords. Other apps including TikTok do the same thing.

The Link History doesn’t mention anything about the invasive ways Facebook monitors what you’re doing once you visit a webpage. It seems the setting only affects Meta’s record of the fact that you clicked a link in the first place. Furthermore, Meta links everything you do on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and its other products. Unlike several of Facebook’s other privacy settings, Link History doesn’t say that it affects any of Meta’s other apps, leaving you with the data harvesting status quo on other parts of Mark Zuckerberg’s empire.

Link History also creates a confusing new regime that establishes privacy settings that don’t apply if you access Facebook outside of the Facebook app. If you log in to Facebook on a computer or a mobile browser instead, Link History doesn’t protect you. In fact, you can’t see the Link History page at all if you’re looking at Facebook on your laptop.

It’s also not clear how far the Link History protections go. Gizmodo asked Meta whether Facebook creates any other records of the links you click on that aren’t called “Link History.” The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Adding to the confusion, Meta tracks things you’re doing on other parts of the internet in a similar but unrelated way. To participate in Meta’s advertising networks, millions of companies add a tracking tool called the “Meta Pixel” to their websites. This sends Meta details about your activity when you’re not using Meta’s products whatsoever, even if you don’t have an account on Facebook or Instagram. A 2022 investigation by the Markup found at least 30% of popular websites use the Meta Pixel.

Facebook and Instagram users have a small amount of control over some of the ways that data is used through a setting called “Off-Facebook Activity,” as well as a confusingly named “Clear History” tool that doesn’t actually “clear” anything. That means Facebook now has two entirely separate places where it stores details about the websites you visit along with settings to control that data that are hard to find and easy to misinterpret.

The new Link History tool comes as other companies go in the exact opposite direction. Apple introduced a powerful (but sometimes ineffective) privacy control for iPhones called App Tracking Transparency in 2020, which dealt a serious blow to Meta’s data business. Google is killing cookies in the Chrome browser, with an initial test phase in the next few days that will turn off cookies for about 30 million Chrome users. At the same time, lawmakers are finally stepping in to enact serious privacy protections for the broader internet. In the EU, regulators issued a fine that will prevent Meta from forcing users to consent to data harvesting.

More from Gizmodo

Sign up for Gizmodo's Newsletter. For the latest news, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.