Facebook Pushes Back Against ‘Super-Cookie’ Charges

Online Privacy Illustration

Another day, another call for a Facebook privacy investigation. Members of Congress and civil liberties groups are making separate requests for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook in light of fresh controversies over how the social networking site tracks users’ internet browsing.

The latest privacy flap comes after an Australian hacker reported on Sunday that some Facebook cookies — programs that gather data about your online activity — remained active even after a user had logged out of Facebook. The company has since claimed it fixed the cookies, which some have dubbed “super-cookies.”

Today, civil liberties groups including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the ACLU released a letter to the FTC that cites the cookie incident in calling for an investigation into whether Facebook committed unfair and deceptive trade practices. The letter comes two days after the co-chairs of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus issued a similar request for an investigation.

Facebook says the incident did not represent a security or privacy breach and that it did not store any of the information from the cookies in question. In an email, a spokesman also called attention to Facebook’s new “Bug Bounty” program that rewards people who point out security risks. The company is emphatic that it does not “track” users outside browsing habits:

Said more plainly, our cookies aren’t used for tracking. They just aren’t. Instead, we use our cookies to either provide custom content (e.g. your friend’s likes within a social plugin), help improve or maintain our service (e.g. measuring click-through rates to help optimize performance), or protect our users and our service.

Facebook’s privacy practices have come under renewed scrutiny since the company’s major announcement last week about “Frictionless Sharing”, a feature that automates news updates about what a user is doing or watching not only on Facebook but on media sites like Spotify or Hulu (ie “Jeff is listening to Backstreet Boys” might appear in the new Ticker feature.)

In their letter to the FTC, the digital rights groups warn that “Frictionless Sharing” and a new story-of-your-life feature called “Timeline” will lead people to inadvertently disclose information about their health or political views to companies and governments.

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