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The data Facebook collects without permission

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On Wednesday afternoon, midway through his grilling at the hands of the House of Representatives, Mar
 
April 12 · Issue #118 · View online
The Interface
On Wednesday afternoon, midway through his grilling at the hands of the House of Representatives, Mark Zuckerberg was asked about Facebook’s data collection practices. The company develops profiles for people who have never used the service. Why? “In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security purposes,” Zuckerberg responded. 
The Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman tweeted the questions that immediately came to mind: “What security purposes? How else is that data used? Do those users know that Facebook has the info and can they delete it?” I predicted the tech press would focus on this point over the next day. It largely did, and I’m grateful for everyone who worked to illuminate the issue.
The basic idea goes like this: there is the data that you volunteer to Facebook, and there is the data that Facebook collects about you regardless. During the hearings, lawmakers focused largely — if not exclusively — on the former category. But by the the end of Wednesday’s harder-edged hearing, it became clear that the latter category was not nearly as well understood. And given its secretive nature, it’s worth much more scrutiny.
As Ben Thompson put it today
“Nearly every time questioning touched on privacy, Zuckerberg immediately emphasized that Facebook gives users tools to control who sees their data. It was a quite clever — and effective — sleight of hand: the questions were about the data Facebook owns about each user, but Zuckerberg’s answers were about content you upload to Facebook.”
We introduced this issue in yesterday’s newsletter, amid the discussion of Congress’ pressure on Facebook to explain how it tracks users around the web. But let’s drill down a bit further.
The story begins with Rep. Joe Kennedy, who pushed Zuckerberg into acknowledging the existence of what are commonly called “shadow profiles.” “I don’t understand how users then own that data,” Kennedy said. In the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal called it the most important exchange of the hearing — largely because Zuckerberg’s answer dodged the question.
This apparent contradiction relies on the company’s distinction between the content someone has intentionally shared—which Facebook mines for valuable targeting information—and the data that Facebook quietly collects around the web, gathers from physical locations, and infers about users based on people who have a similar digital profile. As the journalist Rob Horning put it, that second set of data is something of a “product” that Facebook makes, a “synthetic” mix of actual data gathered, data purchased from outsiders, and data inferred by machine intelligence.
With Facebook, the concept of owning your data begins to verge on meaningless if it doesn’t include that second, more holistic concept: not just the data users create and upload explicitly, but all the other information that has become attached to their profiles by other means.
There are at least three known reasons Facebook collects data about you without your informed consent. 
1. Security. If you don’t have a Facebook account, or do but haven’t logged in, Facebook will track what you do on its public pages. Zuckerberg justified this as a security measure — if it did not do this, people would be able to scrape the contents of every public Facebook page, he told lawmakers. There are likely other security reasons for collecting this kind of data, but Zuckerberg didn’t mention them.
2. Advertising. Yesterday we talked about the Facebook pixel, a piece of code that advertisers use to record your web history and report it back to Facebook. You can opt out of being tracked on Facebook this way in your Facebook settings — assuming you have a Facebook account. If you don’t, your options are unclear, at least to me. 
3. Growth. Former Facebook ad employee Antonio García Martínez pointed out that Facebook builds shadow profiles so that when you create an account, it knows just who your friends are, and recommend them on your first login. Quickly connecting you to your friends and family means you will spend more time on Facebook. 
If you don’t have a Facebook account, you don’t have control over this data: your friends gave it away on your behalf when they agreed to upload their contacts to Facebook — often thanks to deliberately confusing interfaces. You’ll only find it when you join Facebook and find that it already understands your entire social graph.
It’s a relevant point because the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal comes down to who decides how our data is used. Zuckerberg testified this week that we should have control over the data Facebook collects about us. But the most salient point that emerged from his testimony was that, in fact, we don’t.
Congress was listening. Today a bipartisan group of senators led by Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Kennedy (R-LA) announced they would introduce new legislation designed to protect consumers’ data privacy. Among other things, the bill would “ensure users have the ability to see what information about them has already been collected and shared.” And if there’s one lesson that emerged from Facebook’s trip to Washington, it’s that we don’t know the half of it.

Democracy
Lawmakers agree social media needs regulation, but say prompt federal action is unlikely
Facebook says it will stop fighting a major California privacy initiative
The fastest way to regulate Facebook
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces another request to testify — in Europe
It Built an Empire of GIFs, Buzzy News and Jokes. China Isn’t Amused.
Elsewhere
Amid FOSTA crackdown, sex workers find refuge on Mastodon
After Cambridge Analytica, Privacy Experts Get to Say ‘I Told You So’
Facebook warned of data breaches years ago when it went public in 2012
Judge Dismisses Snap Whistleblower Suit
Snapchat Discover Publishers Are Worried
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman clarifies that racism is not welcome on the platform
Telegram is the hot new source for pirated content
Launches
Facebook Stories adds funky AR drawing and Instagram’s Boomerang
Snap is testing commerce with Snapchat Discover publishers
Twitter’s new emoji update ditches the pistol in favor of a water gun
Takes
Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust
Mark Zuckerberg Refuses to Admit How Facebook Works
Facebook quitting advice from a professional internet quitter
And finally ...
Timely street art seen in the Lower Haight yesterday
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Data you have collected about me without my informed consent? casey@theverge.com
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