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Zuckerberg denies knowledge of Facebook shadow profiles

The fact that Facebook probably has a profile of you whether you’re a Facebook user or not might come as a surprise to some users, though today even the company’s chief executive denied knowledge of the practice — or at least the term used to describe it.

In this morning’s hearing with the House Energy & Commerce Committee, New Mexico Representative Ben Ray Lujan cornered Mark Zuckerberg with a question about so-called “shadow profiles” — the term often used to refer to the data that Facebook collects on non-users and other hidden data that Facebook holds but does not offer openly on the site for users to see.

In one of the handful of slightly candid moments of the past few days, Rep. Lujan pressed Zuckerberg on the practice today.

Lujan: Facebook has detailed profiles on people who have never signed up for Facebook, yes or no?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, in general we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes to prevent the kind of scraping you were just referring to [reverse searches based on public info like phone numbers].

Lujan: So these are called shadow profiles, is that what they’ve been referred to by some?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not, I’m not familiar with that.

Lujan: I’ll refer to them as shadow profiles for today’s hearing. On average, how many data points does Facebook have on each Facebook user?

Zuckerberg: I do not know off the top of my head.

Lujan: Do you know how many points of data Facebook has on the average non-Facebook user?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, I do not know off the top of my head but I can have our team get back to you afterward.

Lujan: It’s been admitted by Facebook that you do collect data points on non-[Facebook users]. My question is, can someone who does not have a Facebook account opt out of Facebook’s involuntary data collection?

Zuckerberg: Anyone can turn off and opt out of any data collection for ads, whether they use our services or not but in order to prevent people from scraping public information…. we need to know when someone is repeatedly trying to access our services.

Lujan: It may surprise you that we’ve not talked about this a lot today. You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people who are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement.

And it may surprise you that on Facebook’s page when you go to ‘I don’t have a Facebook account and would like to request all my personal data stored by Facebook it takes you to a form that says ‘go to your Facebook page and then on your account settings you can download your data.’

So you’re directing people that don’t even have a Facebook page to sign up for a Facebook page to access their data… We’ve got to change that.

As TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas explained during a 2013 Facebook privacy scandal:

“Chances are someone you have corresponded with — by email or mobile phone — has let Facebook’s data spiders crawl through their correspondence, thereby allowing your contact data to be assimilated entirely without your knowledge or consent.”

During that privacy breach, Facebook exposed the email addresses and phone numbers of six million users, though it later became apparent that a chunk of those accounts were never handed over to the platform directly by Facebook users. This information can be drawn into Facebook’s vast data aggregation machine through friends or friends or friends via all kinds of channels, including the “find friends” feature that allows the app to scan mobile contacts.

For all of Zuckerberg’s claims that Facebook users own their data, users — and non-users — have no way of determining the full trove of data that the company stores on an individual. As Rep. Lujan was suggesting, it’s likely that the Facebook data users are able to view on the platform is likely only the tip of the the company’s immense data iceberg.

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Facebook’s new authorization process for political ads goes live in the US

Earlier this month — and before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress — the company announced a series of changes to how it would handle political advertisements running on its platform in the future. It had said that people who wanted to buy a political ad — including ads about political “issues” — would have to reveal their identities and location and be verified before the ads could run. Information about the advertiser would also display to Facebook users. Today, Facebook is announcing the authorization process for U.S. political ads is live. Facebook had first said in October that political advertisers would have to verify their identity and location for election-related ads. But in April, it expanded that requirement to include any “issue ads” — meaning those on political topics being debated across the country, not just those tied to an election. Facebook said it would work with third parties to identify the issues. These ads would then be labeled as “Political Ads,” and display the “paid for by” information to end users. According to today’s announcement, Facebook will now begin to verify the identity and the residential mailing address of advertisers who want to run political ads. Those advertisers will also have to disclose who’s paying for the ads as part of this authorization process. This verification process is currently only open in the U.S. and will require Page admins and ad account admins to submit their government-issued ID to Facebook, along with their residential mailing address. The government ID can either be a U.S. passport or U.S. driver’s license, a FAQ explains. Facebook will also ask for the last four digits of admins’ Social Security Number. The photo ID will then be approved or denied in a matter of minutes, though anyone declined based on the quality of the uploaded images won’t be prevented from trying again. The address, however, will be verified by mailing a letter with a unique access code that only the admin’s Facebook account can use. The letter may take up to 10 days to arrive, Facebook notes. Along with the verification portion, Page admins will also have to fill in who paid for the ad in the “disclaimer” section. This has to include the organization(s) or person’s name(s) who funded it. This information will also be reviewed prior to approval, but Facebook isn’t going to fact check this field, it seems. Instead, the company simply says: “We’ll review each disclaimer to make sure it adheres to our advertising policies. You can edit your disclaimers at any time, but after each edit, your disclaimer will need to be reviewed again, so it won’t be immediately available to use.” The FAQ later states that disclaimers must comply with “any applicable law,” but again says that Facebook only reviews them against its ad policies. “It’s your responsibility as the advertiser to independently assess and ensure that your ads are in compliance with all applicable election and advertising laws and regulations,” the documentation reads. Along with the launch of the new authorization procedures, Facebook has released a Blueprint training course to guide advertisers through the steps required, and has published an FAQ to answer advertisers’ questions. Of course, these procedures will only net the more scrupulous advertisers willing to play by the rules. That’s why Facebook had said before that it plans to use AI technology to help sniff out those advertisers who should have submitted to verification, but did not. The company is also asking people to report suspicious ads using the “Report Ad” button. Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny because of how its platform was corrupted by Russian trolls on a mission to sway the 2016 election. The Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies with election interference earlier this year, and Facebook has removed hundreds of accounts associated with disinformation campaigns. While tougher rules around ads may help, they alone won’t solve the problem. It’s likely that those determined to skirt the rules will find their own workarounds. Plus, ads are only one of many issues in terms of those who want to use Facebook for propaganda and misinformation. On other fronts, Facebook is dealing with fake news — including everything from biased stories to those that are outright lies, intending to influence public opinion. And of course there’s the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which led to intense questioning of Facebook’s data privacy practices in the wake of revelations that millions of Facebook users had their information improperly accessed. Facebook says the political ads authorization process is gradually rolling out, so it may not be available to all advertisers at this time. Currently, users can only set up and manage authorizations from a desktop computer from the Authorizations tab in a Facebook Page’s Settings.

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