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Some questions about Facebook are too tricky for its chief executive to answer.
In an extraordinary exchange during Tuesday’s testimony before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg hedged on whether the company tracked its users across devices, even when they may not be logged into the social media platform.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked Facebook’s founder and CEO whether the company collected “user data through cross-device tracking.”
“Senator, I believe we do link people’s accounts between devices, in order to make sure that their Facebook, Instagram and other experiences can be synced between devices.” Zuckerberg said.
Blunt followed up, asking if that included “offline data, data tracking that’s not necessarily linked to Facebook.”
“Senator, I want to make sure that we get this right, so I’m going to have my team follow up with you on this afterwards,” Zuckerberg responded.
“That doesn’t seem that complicated to me,” Blunt responded. “Now you understand this better than I do, but maybe you can explain to me why that’s that complicated. Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook has, that is connected to the device that they use for their Facebook connection but not necessarily connected to Facebook?”
“I’m not sure of the answer to that question,” Zuckerberg said.
Pressure has increased for the company to explain its terms of service and data gathering operations since details about the company’s 2016 election cooperation with Cambridge Analytica have become public, and the bulk of Tuesday’s session was devoted to questions about privacy.
In an article published last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, senior staff technologist Daniel Kahn Gillmor argued that Facebook was tracking him even though he wasn’t a member of the social network.
“While I’ve never ‘opted in’ to Facebook or any of the other big social networks, Facebook still has a detailed profile that can be used to target me,” Gillmor wrote. “I’ve never consented to having Facebook collect my data, which can be used to draw very detailed inferences about my life, my habits, and my relationships. As we aim to take Facebook to task for its breach of user trust, we need to think about what its capabilities imply for society overall. After all, if you do #deleteFacebook, you’ll find yourself in my shoes: non-consenting, but still subject to Facebook’s globe-spanning surveillance and targeting network.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., turned the tables on Zuckerberg, asking whether the Facebook founder would be comfortable sharing the name of the hotel where he stayed in Washington the night before.
“No, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Zuckerberg responded.
“I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin replied. “Your right to privacy. The limits of your right to privacy and how much you give away in modern America in the name of ‘connecting people around the world.’”
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