Face­book can col­lect your data even if you don’t have ac­count

So­cial net­work: ‘Shadow pro­files’ are for se­cu­rity

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Ed Baig

One of the creepi­est things brought to light dur­ing Mark Zucker­berg’s tes­ti­mony on Capi­tol Hill this week was how Face­book can amass data to con­struct what are be­ing re­ferred to as “shadow pro­files” of you, even if you’ve never opted in or joined the world’s largest so­cial net­work.

Face­book’s CEO told Con­gress­man Ben Lu­jan, D-N.M., he was un­fa­mil­iar with shadow pro­files as a term but ac­knowl­edged that “in gen­eral,” Face­book col­lects in­for­ma­tion on peo­ple who have not signed up for the ser­vice, which it does for “se­cu­rity pur­poses.”

But pri­vacy ad­vo­cates worry about what hap­pens to that data when it is in Face­book’s con­trol and not yours, or for that mat­ter slips out of the com­pany’s grasp. Face­book may have pri­vacy tools and poli­cies that mem­bers of the Face­book com­mu­nity can opt in or out of (as­sum­ing they can un­der­stand them), but it’s a dif­fer­ent deal if you’re not on a so­cial net­work that is get­ting the skinny on you any­way.

What do they know? One of the main ways the so­cial net­work can gather de­tails on some­one who hasn’t signed up oc­curs when some­one you know who is on Face­book shares his or her phone con­tact list with the ser­vice, which they’re en­cour­aged to do so that they can more eas­ily find their friends. At the very least Face­book may dis­cover your ad­dress, phone num­ber and email this way, and, ob­vi­ously also knows that you know the friend who re­vealed the con­tact list.

Your friends may also tag you in pho­tos and, wit­tingly or not, spill the beans on other de­tails you might oth­er­wise wish to keep pri­vate.

A sec­ond way in­for­ma­tion typ­i­cally is leaked to Face­book is through the web­sites you drop in on.

Face­book’s on­line help cen­ter points to the fact that if you’re logged out or don’t have a Face­book ac­count and visit a web­site with a “Like” but­ton or other so­cial plug-in, your browser may send Face­book “a lim­ited set of info. Be­cause you’re not logged into Face­book, you’ll have fewer cook­ies (small data files) than some­one who’s logged in. Like other sites on the In­ter­net, we re­ceive info about the web page you’re vis­it­ing, the date and time and other browser-re­lated info. We record this info to help us im­prove our prod­ucts.”

Dur­ing his tes­ti­mony, Zucker­berg men­tioned an­other of the rea­sons for col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on Face­book mem­bers who have logged out: to pre­vent the prac­tice of “scrap­ing.” That’s where some­one may ex­tract in­for­ma­tion from user pro­files, of­ten through a “re­verse search” with a phone num­ber or email ad­dress they al­ready have.

Though Face­book said this scrap­ing fea­ture could be use­ful in help­ing find some peo­ple — per­haps a per­son with a com­mon name shared by many oth­ers — the com­pany also ac­knowl­edged abuse by “ma­li­cious ac­tors” and re­cently dis­abled the re­verse look-up fea­ture.

Daniel Kahn Gill­mor, a se­nior staff tech­nol­o­gist at the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, says Face­book may be us­ing the data it col­lects from peo­ple not on the ser­vice for rea­sons it con­sid­ers to­tally be­nign. And it may not use the data at all. But the sug­ges­tion is also that Face­book may not be great at pro­tect­ing your in­for­ma­tion — a con­cern am­pli­fied by the so­cial net­work’s dis­clo­sure that 87 mil­lion Face­book users’ in­for­ma­tion was im­prop­erly shared with po­lit­i­cal tar­get­ing firm Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica.

Some web­sites may also ex­ploit an an­a­lyt­ics tool called the Face­book Pixel, which can track ac­tiv­ity when you’re logged off. Face­book ex­plains it this way: “When some­one vis­its your web­site and takes an ac­tion (such as com­plet­ing a pur­chase), the Face­book Pixel is trig­gered and re­ports this ac­tion. This way, you’ll ... be able to reach that cus­tomer again through fu­ture Face­book ads.”

If you’re not a Face­book user, you may still get an ad from Face­book urg­ing you to sign up for the ser­vice.

What can you do? It may be im­prac­ti­cal (if not im­pos­si­ble) to no­tify each of your friends and ac­quain­tances to avoid shar­ing their con­tact lists with Face­book, but spread the word to them any­way. And warn them to be care­ful about shar­ing in­for­ma­tion that in­volves other peo­ple.

Heed the ad­vice your­self if you are on Face­book. Re­spect the pri­vacy of friends even if you’re less con­cerned about your own.

“It’s a col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lem in the same way that pol­lu­tion is a col­lec­tive ac­tion prob­lem,” Gill­mor says. “There is some kind of weak­est link fail­ures here.”


Mark Zucker­berg told Congress he was un­fa­mil­iar with “shadow pro­files.”

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