Congress is clueless about Facebook — and that should make us panic

Congress is clueless about Facebook — and that should make us panic
© Greg Nash

Everyone likes to do a little spring cleaning, and Facebook is no exception. In this case, it swept away more than a dozen of the most sensitive types of information it used to collect about you. This included your personal description of yourself, books you’ve read or rated, your music and playlists, and videos you’ve watched.

But that’s not all.

There are numerous observations about the mixing of religion and politics. And, until April 4, Facebook mixed it up using your data about your religious and political affiliations. That also included the news articles you read or published.

In total, 14 types of data Facebook called “Permissions” were deprecated (a fancy software term meaning “obsolete”). I would argue that all 14 permissions were the most sensitive psychographic type of data anyone, anywhere, collects on people.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines psychographics as “market research or statistics classifying population groups according to psychological variables (such as attitudes, values, or fears).”

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Without a doubt, people’s fears were played upon during the 2016 election and beyond. Politicians also played on the fears of voters.

 

While those permissions will still show up in your Facebook profile, the Facebook developer’s page now says “Returns no data as of April 4, 2018.” This is all part of what is called the “Graph API” which is the primary way anyone gets data into and out of the Facebook platform.

Why did Facebook reduce from 48 to 34 the number of fields available to app developers? Why did Facebook wait until April 4 to change what developers and organizations like Cambridge Analytica had access to? Apparently inquiring minds in Congress didn’t want to know, or most likely didn’t know how to ask.

In the Senate hearing, the word “religion” or “religious” was never used. In the context of politics, the word “political” shows up 41 times. The overwhelming majority of uses concerned political ads, not whether Facebook tracked the political views of its users.

Two words describe the hearings — privacy and bias — along with two phrases used repeatedly by Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Officials pressed on Russian interference at security forum | FCC accuses Sinclair of deception | Microsoft reveals Russia tried to hack three 2018 candidates | Trump backs Google in fight with EU | Comcast gives up on Fox bid Facebook's Zuckerberg congratulated Trump after 2016 election: report Facebook to start removing misleading posts that incite violence MORE: “I’ll have my team get back to you” and “I’m sorry.”

In the context of privacy, the Senate and House missed the boat. The fact that no one picked up on these deprecations of permissions highlights the danger of technically-challenged politicians trying to create policy and legislation on technology.

To be fair, there were two perfect examples of this, one from each side of the aisle.

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchSenators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee Don't place all your hopes — or fears — on a new Supreme Court justice MORE (R-Utah) was clearly flummoxed by how Facebook could sustain a business model in which users don’t pay: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Kudos to Zuckerberg for not snorting, although it did take three to four seconds before he replied, “Senator, we run ads.”

Facebook commanded more than 20 percent of the digital ad spend in the United States in 2017 — $17.37 billion. How did this escape the senators’ attention? Isn’t this what the entire Cambridge Analytica and election meddling episodes were all about?

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Senate to vote on resolution telling Trump not to hand over former diplomats MORE (D-Hawaii) thought that WhatsApp is used to email friends about the smash hit “Black Panther”. Never mind that WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform, which Zuckerberg reminded the senator about.

If it’s encrypted end-to-end, no one — even algorithms — can see inside. This verbatim exchange from the hearing should cause citizens to panic:

Sen. Schatz: “Let me — let me try a couple of specific examples. If I'm email — if I'm mailing — emailing within WhatsApp, does that ever inform your advertisers?”

Zuckerberg: “No, we don't see any of the content in WhatsApp, it's fully encrypted.”

Sen. Schatz: “Right, but — but is there some algorithm that spits out some information to your ad platform and then let's say I'm emailing about ‘Black Panther’ within WhatsApp, do I get a WhatsApp — do I get a ‘Black Panther’ banner ad?”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, we don't — Facebook systems do not see the content of messages being transferred over WhatsApp.”

Sen. Schatz: “Yes, I know, but that's — that's not what I'm asking. I'm asking about whether these systems talk to each other without a human being touching it.”

Zuckerberg: “Senator, I think the answer to your specific question is, if you message someone about ‘Black Panther’ in WhatsApp, it would not inform any ads.”

Congress may not think there is a difference between email and messages. But this is a town that endured a lawsuit about the Affordable Care Act based on the phrase “established by the State.” Four words, and words mean things — especially when it comes to making new laws about data privacy and social media technology.

But not a single statement about what Facebook removed access to before Mark Zuckerberg came to Washington.

While Zuckerberg was outmatched by media-loving senators and representatives on several lines of questioning (Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenators push to clear backlog in testing rape kits Russia raises problems for GOP candidates Deal to fix family separations hits snag in the Senate MORE [R-Texas], for example), the members of Congress were clearly out of their depth when asking questions about technology.

I’d call it a draw. And that’s a loss for consumers and citizens.

Morgan Wright is an expert on cybersecurity strategy, cyberterrorism, identity theft and privacy. Previously Morgan was a senior advisor in the U.S. State Department Antiterrorism Assistance Program and senior law enforcement advisor for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Follow him on Twitter @morganwright_us.