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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 and Commerce Committee, New Mexico Representative Ben 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 of 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 company’s immense data iceberg.