Don't you wish you could just 'clear' your Facebook history?

Thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and countless other privacy scandals, many people are more aware of how much data Facebook tracks and keeps on them, as well as how their data can be easily monetised (and weaponised against them) by third parties. As a result, Facebook has been facing a lot pressure, and it's pledged to be more transparent about what it's doing with all your data.

It's been asked to give users more ways to manage their data. So, at F8 2018, Facebook gave in a little. It described its controversies as "major" breaches of trust. Going forward, it vows to "make sure that this never happens again". As part of that effort, Facebook has been developing a 'Clear History' tool. The idea is, finally, you'll be able to clear your Facebook history.

The tool still isn't widely available, but here's everything we know about it.

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What is Facebook's Clear History tool?

In your web browser, whether it's Chrome or Safari, you have a simple way to clear your cookies and browsing history.

Inspired by this capability, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on stage while at the mostly-annual F8 developer conference in 2018 that Facebook is working on its own version so that you can control and clear your browsing history. That includes what you've clicked on, the websites you've visited, and so on. Originally, Facebook said it would call this Clear History. However, it's now calling it "the off-Facebook activity setting".

You'll be able to use the tool to see the sites and apps you've interacted with; you're going to be able to clear all this information from your account, and you'll even be able to turn it off, Zuckerberg explained.

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How does Facebook collect data?

Before we get into how Clear History is supposed to work, according to Facebook, you first need to understand how exactly Facebook collects your data. It collects information on you the following ways:

  1. Through information you provide or grant access to via website and apps.
  2. Through information Facebook collects about which websites you visit while you’re not on Facebook. It also collects this information from people who aren't on Facebook.

That second way is the one we're focused on... Facebook, in the background, logs the sites and apps you’ve visited, what you’ve bought, and what you’ve clicked on while browsing the web. This happens when you visit any site that features a Facebook Like button, share button, an ad bought through Facebook, etc.

A website may also insert cookies onto your browser, helping Facebook follow you around. These cookies can even detect if you’re logged in to Facebook. But, for years, when you downloaded your data using Facebook's data tool, you wouldn't see any of this "off-Facebook" data listed. So, it’s not always been clear what information Facebook's collects on you.

However, Facebook wants to change that with Clear History.

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How will Clear History work?

Clear History is a new setting that shows you the "off-Facebook browsing data" Facebook collects on you. It'll allow you to tap a “clear” button to disassociate that collected data from your profile. When this setting is available, you'll be able to review a summary of your off-Facebook activity, including the apps and sites that are tracking your activity for ad-targeting.

As noted by Buzzfeed, privacy experts think the tool won’t delete your browsing history from Facebook’s servers. It also won’t let you opt-out of Facebook’s tracking altogether. It will just let you view your browsing history, block sites and apps from sending the tracking data they collect on you to Facebook, and dissociate all of your off-Facebook browsing data from your profile.

But that doesn't mean Facebook will remove your history from its servers. It just means your data will be unidentifiable and not associated with you. More importantly, Facebook has not said how it'll handle your browsing history once it’s detached from your Facebook profile.

In other words, Clear History looks great at first, but it may ring hollow in reality. 

When will Clear History be available?

Clear History was originally supposed to be available in 2018. However, the company's David Baser told Recode that Clear History will be available for testing "by spring of 2019". It's "taking longer" to launch due to technical issues that popped up during development. Obviously, spring has come and gone, so, where is it? Well, after months of delays, Facebook’s Clear History is now rolling out in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain.

Other countries to follow “in coming months,” the company said. Facebook said it's slowly “to help ensure it’s working reliably for everyone". Its engineering teams had to build a new way for them to process information, and it conducted months of research to get input from people.

If you want to see if the tool is available for your profile now, go here and look for a notice that says it's available. If you see "the off-Facebook activity setting isn't currently available to you right now", then it is not available yet.

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