During the two-day congressional hearings on Facebook, the company's CEO Mark Zuckerberg made several assertions about Facebook's data collection and privacy controls but didn't want to explain how the social network operates.
The Facebook CEO ducked questions from lawmakers about what types of information the company collects and how it uses the data for advertising purposes.
Zuckerberg found it hard to plainly acknowledge that Facebook tracks users from device to device, collects information on websites people visit and apps they use, gathers information on people's physical locations, collects phone call logs from Android smartphones and pulls in some online activity from people who don't even have Facebook accounts.
Zuckerberg also declined to acknowledge that Facebook's ad system and products are informed by all of this information gathering on and off the social network.
He said he couldn't answer queries such as whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. Zuckerberg claimed not to know what "shadow profiles" are, even though this term has been used for years to describe Facebook's collection of data about people who don't use its services by harvesting the inboxes and smartphone contacts of active Facebook users.
Zuckerberg also repeatedly sought to conflate the ability of Facebook users to control who sees the information they post on Facebook and their relative inability to control what data Facebook collects about them.
"People have the ability to see everything they have in Facebook, take that out, delete that account and move their data anywhere that they want," Zuckerberg said. The truth is that users can download a subset of the information it has collected on them. The resulting file mostly contains a jumble of contacts, messages and advertisers who have been allowed to target users through Facebook. Obviously, the it is very hard (technically) to take your data elsewhere.
"There is a setting so if you don't want any data to be collected around advertising, you can turn that off and then we won't do it, " Zuckerberg said. Although users can limit ad targeting, Facebook shows users ads based on interests they've expressed over the years and the companies they have "interacted" with by default.
Turning off such targeted ads through the available option in the Facebook settings doesn't stop the data collection. Facebook also adds targeting categories based on users' demographic information. Turning off those categories is a chore, as users have to select them one by one in settings.
"There may be specific things about how you use Facebook, even if you're not logged in, that we keep track of, to make sure that people aren't abusing the systems," Zuckerberg said. At a different point in the hearing, he said: "In general, we collect data of people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes."
The fact is that Facebook collects data on users' online habits wherever it can find them, and very little of it appears to be for security purposes.
Facebook pays third-party websites and apps to let it place tracking code across the internet and mobile devices. That code can be embedded in browser "cookies," invisible screen pixels, or Facebook's "like" and "share" buttons.
That code then reports back to Facebook on users' surfing habits to help it better target ads. Along with Google, Facebook is consistently among the top three data-collectors in the field.
Are all above something we didn't know so far? Absolutely not, since we should always remember that every business has to make profit. And Facebook is a very successful business. Does the average internet user care? Well, the majority of users have been served with information spicy enough to fuel their conversations and some of them may actually be skeptical or even angry. But this anger will last just until they upload their next fabulous picture or even proudly share their new car picture in the social network. Any possible changes in the privacy rules/settings that could be made by Facebook in the near future will be easily accepted by everyone, without any second thought.
And don't forget that it's not just about Facebook, as every popular service online is based on user tracking. Facebook is only the tip of the iceberg. Of much greater concern, perhaps, should be the portal (whether through its web browser, Chrome, or its search function) that most of us use to get there: Google. In the era of Internet Of Things and the all-digital, always-connected life, there not much you can do to stay away from the data trove giants.