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Meta begins encrypting Facebook URLs, nullifying tracking countermeasures

The move has made URL stripping impossible but will improve analytics

A screen with a stylised M logo and the word Meta sits on a reflective surface

Meta has doubled down on its inclusion of tracking parameters in URLs posted to Facebook, by encrypting URLs to include parameters within required portions of the address itself.

When a user clicks a link shared through Facebook, all kinds of parameters are added to the URL. Some of these, such as utm_source and utm_medium are used by analytics sites such as Google Analytics to measure where traffic is coming from, and how much of it there is.

Facebook has historically used the parameter fbclid to measure what sites its users visit and which links they click, whether or not those sites support Facebook’s tracking script Meta Pixel. These are then used to tailor users’ ad profiles, to target them more effectively.

URLs under the new system lack clearly defined parameter names, appearing instead as a long string of letters and numbers in which all the address and tracking information is included in an encrypted format.

It is normally possible to strip certain parameters from URLs, removing the tracking element and increasing link privacy. Some browsers even offer URL stripping as a built-in choice, for privacy-minded users.

These include Firefox, which last month introduced a feature called ‘Query Parameter Stripping’ that automatically removes tracking parameters from URLs to improve the privacy profile of its users. This can be activated in the browser's configuration settings. The browser Brave also supports a URL stripping feature. With its move to encrypt the URL parameters, Meta has greatly impacted the ability of such tools to effectively strip the tracking elements.

In binding tracking elements with the URLs in such a way that it is impossible to tell where the web address ends and the parameters begin, Meta has found a way to track data for advertising almost unavoidably. This is a boost for its analytics operation, as well as for the tech giant's advertising partners whose interests include targeted data on as many users as possible.

With 153 million users, Firefox represents a not insignificant pool of users to Meta, which enjoyed just under $115 billion in revenue last year largely through advertising.

It Pro has reached out to Meta for comment.

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