Facebook removes 'treason' advertising tag after algorithm labels thousands of Russian users 'interested' in category

Facebook removes 'treason' advertising tag after algorithm labels thousands of Russian users 'interested' in category
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Facebook removed “treason” as an advertising tag on Wednesday after its algorithm automatically labeled 65,000 Russian users as interested in the category, potentially putting them at risk for government retaliation.

“Treason was included as a category, given its historical significance. Given it’s an illegal activity, we’ve removed it as an interest category,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian.

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The tag was based on categories Facebook automatically assigns to users based on their behavior on the site.

Though Russia does not censor its citizens' internet accessibilities, the tag raises concern among those who fear Russian authorities using such data to track down and repress users labeled with the tag.

“Officially, the internet is not censored in Russia," Russia expert Mette Skak told The Guardian. "However, these methods, which Facebook has probably unwittingly given the Russian authorities, make it much easier for governmental agencies to systematically track persons marked as potential traitors.”

Such information isn’t explicitly made public but can be accessible to third parties, as The Guardian notes. Advertisers can view such categories associated with users through the company's tools and then lob targeted advertisements or messaging at users based on the interests associated with their profiles. Advertisers can then track which users click on the ad.

The company is removing the treason tag after it was revealed that Mail.ru, a Russian platform with ties to Moscow had received special access to Facebook data, in a 700-page document dump to Congress.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNN that they did not find any abuse of user data from the site.

“Mail.Ru, one of the top five largest internet companies in the world, has built apps for the Facebook platform and for other major platforms, including iOS and Android for years. We’ve found no indication of misuse with Mail.Ru. If we find misuse, we ban the developers,” a spokesperson said.

Facebook is grappling with heightened scrutiny over its platform's operations since the revelation earlier this year that Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested data from 87 million of its users.