April 15, 2024

New and serious warning from Facebook for Apple iPhone and Google Android users

If you have the Facebook mobile app on your phone, then a new warning issued this week is directed at you. But there’s a much more worrying problem that this has also exposed, one that should make Facebook’s two billion users seriously consider whether they should use the app.

Facebook’s latest app update has been described in X as “a big deal that demands press attention” and “the creepiest thing you’ll read all day.” And then you might think that this is enough to turn you off. But this “creepy” change can be easily disabled, and that’s exactly what you should do. However, the technology behind this is much harder to disable and much creepier.

Let’s start with that update. Facebook’s new Link History keeps a list of the websites you visit through its built-in browser, so you can return to any site at any time. When your app updates, you’ll see the option to turn off Link History, thus losing the convenience of “all your Facebook browsing activity stored in one place,” but also avoiding the inevitable Facebook sidebar that says “we can Use Facebook mobile browser link history information to improve your Meta ads.”

This “standard feature for most browsing experiences,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Drum, “makes it easier for people to revisit links they’ve clicked on in the past and can improve the quality of the ads they see.” “. And Facebook also highlights the apparent transparency and control of users.

There is certainly a balance here. Facebook, along with Google, remains the most valuable data collection machine in the world. But while Google just made headlines by finally making good on its promise to eliminate hidden tracking cookies in Chrome, Facebook appears to be doing the opposite, with this seemingly new form of tracking that is sold as a user convenience but is used to target ads.

The update is certainly a sensible concession to regulators for the fact that privacy controls are being implemented, but on the other hand it provides an opportunity for Facebook to request user permission for a tracking technology. And millions of users will choose to participate. The conflicting headlines about Facebook in recent years, as Apple undermined its business model with Ad Tracking Transparency, have now faded. And the tracking industry is clearly well prepared to find new ways to restore some of what was lost.

While Link History can be dismissed as the latest form of tracking dressed as a convenience that can be disabled, there is a much more serious problem hidden behind it. In-app browsers are a little-understood threat to user privacy and security.

The browser built into Facebook’s mobile app is described as “one of the most popular and underreported browser segments on the web.” The problem is that when you use the in-app browser on Facebook, or on Instagram, TikTok, or any other app, you bypass all the browser privacy and security advancements made in recent years, including Google’s latest culinary success.

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As a former Google engineer warned last year, Facebook “presents all third-party links and ads within its app using a custom in-app browser… and the host app can track every interaction with external websites, from all the form entries. like passwords and addresses, in every touch.”

If you’re using Facebook in Apple’s Safari, for example, and you click on an external link, Apple’s settings protect your privacy. There are limits on what Facebook (or other websites) can do regarding collecting your data and tracking your activity. But if the browser is Facebook’s, then technically they have free rein, although Meta ensures that it respects the privacy settings of the application on your phone.

The problem for Facebook is not that link history is making waves, as the media sends warnings to change the settings. The problem is that this sheds light on the risks of applications from organizations that track users as part of their business models. Facebook is a tracking business. You are their product, not their customer. Your customers are the companies that purchase access from you in the form of targeted ads to deliver the best possible return on investment. Link History has been described as the latest “privacy nightmare” for Facebook, but it is just the tip of an iceberg that has now come into view.

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While there is a constant stream of commentary about privacy differentiators between Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, and others, all those protections are undone when using an in-app browser. Cross-site tracking does not apply within an ecosystem. And secure communications company Proton even warns users “not to use web browsers within the app if you’re interested in keeping your passwords private.”

I asked Facebook what restrictions apply to data collection when a user turns off Link History in regards to background browser tracking in the app. I wait an answer. You should certainly disable Link History when your app updates, if it hasn’t already. If so, you can access the “browser settings” within the settings menu of the application itself. You need to restrict Facebook app permissions, tracking permission, and also activity outside of Facebook.

Taking the example of Facebook, below is the privacy report (courtesy of the Apple App Store) about the data collected to track you on other apps and sites, or that is linked to you and can be used to create a profile targeting you with ads and refine your value as a product to sell to advertisers.

It’s no surprise that “there’s an app for that” for almost everything you do on your mobile device. And while you can seemingly monitor your interactions with the app itself, this data tracking expands greatly when you use that app to browse the ever-widening Web.

When you look at the data collection above, you may want to ask yourself if the convenience of an in-app browser is worth the risk. You should certainly think about the sites you visit and the information you provide while doing so, if you don’t want to go so far as to avoid or delete apps.

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