Why Facebook Pixels Are Not Allowed on Our Website

A decision we made recently at King County, Wash., regarding Facebook pixels and the social network’s ability to track user data on our website is worth sharing here.

In short: Facebook ads for government can be a good thing, but the relatively new “pixel” feature is not something we have authorized.

Summary

As we increase our use of Facebook ads for public outreach, I have received several requests to add Facebook pixels to pages on the King County website. The “pixel” refers to an HTML code snippet placed on specific pages that lets Facebook track user “conversions” from advertisements we place. Basically, it lets us know if our ads are effective or not.

At issue is the fact that the data Facebook collects from its pixel feature is not anonymous and can be tied to individual users, often by name. This kind of data tracking violates our privacy policy, and is therefore not allowed on King County websites.

Here’s how Facebook pixels work:

  • Facebook ads drive people to our website.
  • The pixel code allows Facebook to track how many of the people who clicked our advertisement actually register for an event, download a report, take a survey, etc.
  • This information gives us a clear conversion rate. For example, if 100 people click our Facebook ad and land on the county website, but only 2 of those 100 people take the action we want them to take (downloading a report, let’s say) then our conversion rate is 2%.
  • The goal is to use this data point to make informed decisions, such as whether to improve the website experience to drive up the conversion rate.
Facebook pixels are not allowed on King County websites.

The Facebook pixel code with a standard event. Image from Facebook’s help site.

Privacy concerns

Website tracking of this nature is a tactic employed by countless private-sector organizations, and probably some public-sector groups as well. But the data Facebook collects from its pixel feature is not anonymous and can be tied to individual users, often by name. If we allowed this, Facebook would know who did what on the King County website, and it most certainly would use that information to target advertisements to those people later on.

This is something web users have come to expect from many of the company websites they visit. We do not feel, however, that it’s appropriate for a government website to track user data by name. Moreover, this kind of data tracking very clearly violates our privacy policy:

  • King County may track information, such as user hits, visits and sessions; however this information cannot be linked to a specific person.
  • When King County collects personal information from you, we do not sell or make your personal information available to others without your consent except when legally required or permitted by law, or needed to complete your transaction with the county.

Governance decision

Giving a third-party organization such as Facebook this kind of access to information about our residents could violate the public’s trust. To this end, we consulted our eGovernment team, several local digital media experts, and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which advises our IT department on technical matters.

Everyone agreed that while there is no legal issue with Facebook pixels in general, this tool very plainly violates our privacy policy and is therefore not allowed on King County government websites. It’s a decision you may have to make for your own jurisdiction, and my hope is that our experience helps you understand the issue more clearly.

Derek Belt is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment

3 Comments

Leave a Reply to Derek Belt Cancel reply

Rachel

Can you provide the source for the statement, “At issue is the fact that the data Facebook collects from its pixel feature is not anonymous and can be tied to individual users, often by name.”?

Reply
Profile Photo Derek Belt

Hi Rachel – Here is a link with info on how Facebook pixels work: https://www.shopify.com/blog/72787269-relax-advertising-on-facebook-just-got-a-lot-easier

In short: If you have the Facebook pixel installed, it will track the movements of any visitors on your website who are simultaneously logged into Facebook. It will record which pages on your site they visit, which pages they don’t visit, and when they visit. Using this data, you can advertise to very targeted groups of people.

The part about tracking people “who are simultaneously logged into Facebook” is the key. Let’s say someone is using Facebook and sees an ad about shoes that they click on. If the shoe company’s website has the Facebook pixel installed, Facebook’s advertising metrics will track whether that user actually bought the shoe—or whatever the goal is for a certain website.

Facebook reports this information to you in its analytics dashboard so you can see that of the 100 people who clicked your ad, only 2 of them bought a pair of shoes. That’s what we get out of it as the business. Makes sense, and it’s very helpful for marketers.

What does Facebook get out of it? A LOT MORE! Back to the part about people “who are simultaneously logged into Facebook.” Facebook is watching very carefully what all of us does on its website so that it can use that information to build advertising profiles on each of us. For example, if you click on lots of stories about dogs and cats you can expect to start seeing advertising in your news feed about pets. That’s how Facebook works.

The pixel allows Facebook to track what each individual user does on OTHER websites. So those people who visited your shoe company’s website and giving Facebook extra data on what you did on the shoe company’s website and what you clicked on or purchased. Facebook, then, uses that information to keep building its advertising profile on you, which its sells to others looking to reach certain audiences.

This is great for the shoe company, but we don’t feel it’s appropriate to give Facebook that kind of data about what people are doing on a government website. As a side note, Google Analytics does not track people by name, only behavior. Facebook, on the other hand, needs to know WHO is clicking on what on the shoe company’s website so it can use that information in the future to better target advertising to that one person.

Make sense?

Reply