Face­book knows when you need to charge your phone

Law­mak­ers wanted an­swers on so­cial net­work’s pri­vacy prac­tices, and got a 454-page re­ply

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - El­iz­a­beth Weise and Ash­ley Wong

SAN FRAN­CISCO – Face­book tracks when you need to recharge your phone and even knows when you’re look­ing at the Face­book page on your com­puter screen. And it’s OK with be­ing reg­u­lated, as long as it gets to help write those reg­u­la­tions.

These were some of the dis­clo­sures made by the world’s largest so­cial net­work late Mon­day when the Se­nate re­leased 454 pages of an­swers from the Menlo Park, Cal­i­for­nia-based com­pany.

CEO Mark Zucker­berg had re­peat­edly promised law­mak­ers his staff would fol­low up on ques­tions about Face­book’s ap­proach to pri­vacy dur­ing two days of gru­el­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings in April. Se­na­tors had also sent 2,000 ques­tions in ad­vance of those hear­ings, which fol­lowed out­rage over rev­e­la­tions Face­book knew Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica bought per­sonal data on 87 mil­lion users, with­out the users’ con­sent, for po­lit­i­cal ad tar­get­ing dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Al­to­gether, the an­swers pro­vided the pub­lic with de­tails on some lesser­known ways Face­book has de­vised to track its 2.2 bil­lion users but left many broader ques­tions unan­swered.

For in­stance, Face­book re­vealed that it col­lects data — a lot of data — about the var­i­ous de­vices peo­ple use to log into Face­book, such as com­put­ers, their smart­phones and their tablets. Face­book also col­lects in­for­ma­tion such as the de­vice’s bat­tery level, how much avail­able stor­age they have and the strength of the Wi-Fi sig­nal the ma­chine is re­ceiv­ing.

The com­pany also knows whether you’re ac­tu­ally look­ing at your Face­book win­dow or if you’ve just got it open as one of many tabs. In some cases, Face­book can also gather in­for­ma­tion about nearby de­vices or other de­vices on the user’s net­work.

The Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica data rev­e­la­tions, on the heels of the com­pany’s be­lated ac­knowl­edge­ment that a Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion op­er­a­tion had scammed its users with mil­lions of fake posts de­signed to sway their vot­ing, turned into a pub­lic re­la­tions cri­sis. Celebri­ties vowed to delete their Face­book, law­mak­ers threat­ened reg­u­la­tions and Zucker­berg agreed for the first time to tes­tify be­fore Congress.

The hear­ings also gave a plat­form for law­mak­ers to air some long­stand­ing com­plaints — such as al­le­ga­tions Face­book’s news feed is bi­ased against con­ser­va­tives. As one of his 114 ques­tions, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, posed a se­ries of de­tailed queries about what types of speech Face­book might define as hate speech and there­fore cen­sor, in­clud­ing state­ments such as “Is­lam is a re­li­gion of peace” and “Is­lam is a re­li­gion of war,” as well as “All white peo­ple are in­her­ently racist” and “All black peo­ple are in­her­ently racist.”

In its an­swer, Face­book said it would define hate speech as some­thing vi­o­lent or de­hu­man­iz­ing, state­ments of in­fe­ri­or­ity and calls for ex­clu­sion or seg­re­ga­tion. It did not an­swer Cruz’s spe­cific ques­tions about the 27 state­ments listed in his ques­tion. Cruz also asked what per­cent­age of mod­er­a­tors Face­book uses to check posted con­tent were reg­is­tered as Repub­li­cans or Democrats or had do­nated, vol­un­teered for, in­terned with or run for of­fice in ei­ther party. Face­book re­sponded, “We do not main­tain sta­tis­tics on these data points.”

In the an­swers, the com­pany de­tailed ways its part­ners were able to gather in­for­ma­tion about users’ ac­tiv­i­ties even if they’re not logged into Face­book, in­clud­ing pur­chases they make and games they play. Ques­tions about how Face­book tracks nonusers dur­ing the hear­ing had il­lu­mi­nated the so­cial net­work’s dig­i­tal reach, which many users had ei­ther ig­nored or taken for granted. De­spite the length of the re­sponses, many did not ac­tu­ally an­swer the ques­tions asked. For ex­am­ple, the Com­mit­tee said it “had be­come aware that Face­book has sur­veyed users about whether they trust the com­pany to safeguard their pri­vacy” and asked that Zucker­berg pro­vide re­sults of any such sur­vey. But in a 326-word re­ply, Face­book did not say whether it sur­veyed its users or what it found if it did.


Dur­ing two days of tes­ti­mony in April, CEO Mark Zucker­berg told Congress he would fol­low up on ques­tions about Face­book’s ap­proach to pri­vacy.


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