Dislike to Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button: Graphic Illustrates How Social Network Blurs Line Between Consumer Privacy and Interests

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Kudos to The Wall Street Journal for bringing to light an issue that most Facebook-addicted fans never knew.

Remember when Facebook introduced the “Like” button and other “smart” widgets last  year?

Well, you probably already knew that every time you click “Like” on a friend’s link, story, or content they’ve shared on their wall, it probably becomes loosely entwined with your profile.

That’s basic common sense, and it goes with the thinly veiled territory of social media privacy.

But what you probably didn’t know is that every time you’re reading an article on a non-Facebook page, like MSNBC, or CNN, or any other website that has installed the social-media widgets, those details are forever tied to your online profile.

Yes, you read that right. Simply browsing websites and online news outlets that have installed Facebook’s social widget tool means your actions are being tracked, even if you never click the “Like” or “Recommend this article” buttons. This is all possible because of cookies, those sleuthing bits of technology that track your every move online.

The WSJ says Facebook’s “Like” or “Recommend” buttons appear on one-third of the world’s 1,000 most-visited websites. So it turns out that all of your online habits, whether you click “Like” or not, is a powerful way for Facebook to track Internet users and potentially sell your browsing habits to the highest bidder.

Taken another way, the WSJ has discovered that simply reading an article about bankruptcy, or depression, or any other topic you wouldn’t necessarily broadcast to your 325 Facebook “friends,” is still known to Facebook and other third parties.

It’s the same story on Twitter. Even if you don’t hit the “Tweet” button to share, the simple action of you reading a story on a website that has installed the social-sharing technology is enough to capture that data.

And what happens to that information? Who really cares that you’ve been reading about those topics?

Advertisers care. A lot. It’s big business, and it helps advertisers and online marketers better understand your interests, likes, dislikes, and personal story. The WSJ study found that “a person only needs to have logged into Facebook or Twitter once in the past month. The sites will continue to collect browsing data, even if the person closes their browser or turns off their computers, until that person explicitly logs out of their Facebook or Twitter accounts.”

Do you want strangers to know what you’re reading? What if health insurance companies want that information before issuing a new policy? Or a potential employer wants it before extending a job offer?

“Our reading habits online encompass everything we’re thinking about, political and religious views, health and relationship problems,” said Peter Eckersley, a senior technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy-advocacy group. “Do you want to have an invisible person peering over your shoulder as you walk through the library?”

Now that you know, you can either click the Facebook “Recommend” link below or not. Someone out there knows you read this story, whether you broadcast it on Facebook or not.

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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.