Lawmakers concerned Facebook patent application means they're tracking users

Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) wrote to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday asking him to explain a February patent application they claim raises concerns about Facebook tracking users on other websites.

“Facebook’s patent application raises serious questions about whether the company plans to track users now or in the future,” Markey said.

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“Tracking users’ online behavior without their permission is wrong, and Facebook should clarify its plans for this patent. I am alarmed by a continuing pattern of privacy and security issues at Facebook, and I will continue to monitor this situation closely.”

The letter references a report from Hillicon last month in which a Facebook spokesman asserted that the firm "does not track people over the Internet." The pair has written to Facebook several times this year over privacy concerns and have suggested the Federal Trade Commission probe the firm.

The lawmakers quote experts that claim the patent application contemplates tracking users on websites aside from Facebook and sending them targeted advertisements based on the information gleaned from such tracking.

“You can’t have it both ways,” said Barton. “I find it disturbing that Facebook has filed a patent to allow the company to basically track users when needed, while at the same time saying publically it ‘does not track’ users. Something just doesn’t add up."

Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes referred to a statement he posted on Uncrunched last month when the website reported the patent application.

"Some people have suggested that this application is intended to patent tracking of logged out users. Nothing could be further from the truth," Noyes wrote.

He explained that portion of the application in question is actually describing social plugins that are a fundamental part of the Facebook platform. They let Facebook users visit websites with plugins and see what content their friends have liked without having to log in every time.

"If you continue reading the application ... you'll also find it is consistent with our longstanding principles of notice, choice and control, and offers mechanisms and processes by which a person would be notified and could opt in or out," Noyes added.

Barton disagreed in his statement, citing the site's privacy policy as evidence the firm tracks users on third-party sites.

"According to their privacy policy, Facebook receives your IP address, web address, and the operating system used when a user visits any website that has the Facebook icon on the page. In some cases, they even know your User ID name and your location," Barton said.

"This sounds like tracking to me, and I believe that it is time for Facebook to become more transparent about their data collection practices across the Internet.”

The lawmakers note there are other motivations for filing patents beyond protecting policies that are already in place or planned for implementation. They ask Facebook to explain its motivation for filing the patent while asserting that it doesn't track users across the Web.

Noyes argued the patent doesn't definitively indicate the firm's future plans.

"Technology companies patent lots of ideas. Some of these ideas become products or features and some don’t," he said. "As a result, current functionality and future business plans shouldn’t be inferred from our patent applications."