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Firefox Releases Facebook Container Extension

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Firefox has released an extension that it claims will stop the company snooping on users’ non-Facebook web traffic. The Facebook Container extension isolates users' identities to a separate container tab, which makes it harder for Facebook to track other web activity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a user's activity on Facebook itself (who he or she "likes", who they follow, who they are friends with, what pages they shop on, etc.) can easily be tracked by the company, however Facebook can also track user activity on any other web sites that contain Facebook "like" buttons, embedded comments, or other Facebook widgets. Perhaps least obvious is the Facebook Pixel, a virtually invisible widget that partner businesses can embed in their own sites and use to feed data back to Facebook for retargeting. Through all these conduits Facebook harvests data and associates the web usage to the user's Facebook ID, whether they are logged into Facebook or not. This can then be used to draw inferences on the user used to target advertising or content.

This capability is something Facebook has been able to do for a long time. Seven years ago former hacker turned security blogger Nik Cubrilovic reported that even after logging out of Facebook the site's cookies were neither removed or deleted, only altered, which explains how Facebook can still track visits to sites using Facebook widgets and tie them to a user's Facebook ID. In July of last year, a lawsuit brought against Facebook in California failed to stop Facebook doing this.

Once installed and activated, the new Firefox extension opens Facebook in a new blue coloured tab, the "container". Facebook can be used normally in this tab but if you click on a non-Facebook link or navigate to a non-Facebook website in the URL bar, those pages are loaded outside the container. Clicking Facebook "share" buttons on other browser tabs loads them within the Facebook Container. Any activity outside of Facebook can no longer be tracked. The price for privacy is that embedded Facebook comments and "Like" buttons in tabs outside the Facebook Container will not work and websites that allow users to create an account or log in using your Facebook credentials will generally not work properly either.

To say that Facebook has been in the news recently would be a distinct understatement. A torrent of stories have broken about how users' data is used, as well as the role the platform may or may not play in the dissemination of fake news, fake adverts, organized teen violence and even potentially influencing the outcome of supposedly democratic elections. This all has resulted in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg answering questions before the US Congress and Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, appearing before a similar committee in the UK.

Zuckerberg’s refusal to appear himself before the UK parliament has resulted in an strong response from the UK parliament. In a letter sent on Tuesday (.PDF) by the UK Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee member MP Damian Collins to Rebecca Stimson, the head of Facebook's public policy at the UK press office, Collins once again re-issued the invitation, which has previously appeared to have been ignored.

"It is worth noting that, while Mr. Zuckerberg does not normally come under the jurisdiction of the UK parliament, he will do so the next time he enters the country," Collins wrote. "We hope that he will respond positively to our request, but if not the committee will resolve to issue a formal summons for him to appear when he is next in the UK."

Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of the latest Facebook data harvesting scandal, announced it was going out of business on the 2nd of May, though how long it will remain that way is another source of speculation.

While all this controversy does not seem to have hurt Facebook financially, there has been pushback of sorts. Some high-profile companies have deserted the platform completely and Facebook developers are reportedly unhappy too.

Facebook itself is also making some changes. The Firefox extension may soon prove redundant however, as it appears that Facebook is making some moves to put its own house in order. For example, Zuckerburg announced at the Facebook Developer conference F8 that the capability for users to clear their history is going to be added. European GDPR legislation has also pushed the company to make privacy changes for European customers, though Josh Constine, writing for Techcrunch, has pointed out a number of flaws in their approach.

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