Monday

17th Jun 2019

Investigation

Tory and National Front websites hid Facebook tracking pixel

  • The website of the Front National party has the controversial Facebook tracking pixel (Photo: Peter Teffer)

At least eleven European political parties - including the UK's Conservative Party and France's National Front - currently have a controversial Facebook tracking tool on their website.

Two EU agencies and the Nordic Council also used it on their websites.

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  • The code for the Facebook tracking tool. (Photo: Screenshot Norden.org)

The tool, a pixel, allows Facebook to track visitors by placing files on their device called cookies, which store that they have visited that website.

The website's owner can then buy advertisements targeted specifically to those Facebook users that have visited the website. Specific tailoring to certain parts of the website is also possible.

The tracking mechanism is controversial because the pixel cannot be seen with the naked eye, and website visitors are often not clearly informed.

On Wednesday (11 April), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the US House of Representatives that he did not know how many pixel trackers existed on the internet.

A court in Brussels said last February that the Facebook pixel is a violation of privacy rights - a ruling Facebook has appealed.

Earlier this week Willem Debeuckelaere, head of the Belgian data protection authority, said that those that put the pixel on their website were "strictly speaking complicit in undermining privacy legislation".

Belgian media reported on Wednesday that several Flemish government websites had invisible Facebook pixels on their websites. The same day, Dutch media revealed that some health insurers and a hospital had been tracking users through the pixels.

On Thursday, the entire Lower House of the Dutch parliament said they wanted to discuss the issue with the government - while at least one political party still uses the invisible pixels on its website.

Pixel helper

EUobserver looked at the websites of dozens of European political parties, the major EU institutions, and all EU agencies.

By using a plug-in in the Google Chrome browser called Facebook Pixel Helper, this website was able to identify lines in the website's source codes that looked like the pixel.

The plug-in was developed by Facebook itself, to help website administrators double-check if the pixel was working correctly.

By opening up the source codes of the websites, EUobserver could then establish whether the Facebook pixel was there. The presence of the pixel does not reveal how it is used.

We found it in the websites of a range of EU political parties, from left-wing to right-wing and from different corners of the continent.

From left-wing to right-wing

The parties that had websites with Facebook pixels were: the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Conservatives (UK), Forum for Democracy (the Netherlands), National Front (France), the Liberal Democrats (UK), the Nationalist Party (Malta), the New Austria and Liberal Forum, New Flemish Alliance (Belgium), Save Romania Union, Sinn Fein (Ireland), and Venstre (Denmark).

According to Belgian media, the Flemish centre-left Social Democrat Party also had the pixel, but this appeared to have been removed.

EUobserver also found that the pixel was present in the website of two of the EU's agencies: the Malta-based European Asylum Support Office (EASO), and the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) in Budapest.

"The tracking pixel was included on our website in order to measure the outreach of our social media campaigns, including views and impressions," said EASO spokesman Anis Cassar.

"I would emphasise that EASO has a specific cookie policy in this regard, in line with the policy applied by the European Commission and other EU institutions and agencies," Cassar said.

The agency's website does say that social media may install cookies, but only on a webpage that is reached if the user first clicks on the word 'legal' in the footer and then scrolls down to a link to EASO's cookie policy.

"EASO is currently looking into reviewing the use of the tracking pixel," added Cassar.

The EIT told EUobserver on Thursday evening (12 April) that the Facebook pixel had been removed that day after questions from this website.

'More relevant content'

The Nordic Council, a cooperation network of Denmark, Finlance, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Aland islands, also used the pixel.

"We have installed the Facebook pixel in order to expose more relevant content on Facebook for website visitors," said Marita Hoydal, the Nordic Council's digital editor.

"This is mainly career opportunities or free publications and news about specific subjects that the user has showed interest in on our website," she said.

Hoydal added that her organisation was "looking into the matter" in light of the EU's general data protection regulation that will come into force next month.

The pixel was not found to be present on the websites of the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, the Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Court of Justice, the Court of Auditors, the websites belonging to the political groups in the European Parliament, the European Space Agency, or the 28 data protection authorities.

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