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Nevada's senators question Zuckerberg, press him on privacy and consumer protections

Humberto Sanchez
Humberto Sanchez

Nevada's two U.S. senators got to showcase their interrogation skills Tuesday when they participated in a much-hyped hearing featuring Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who is facing scrutiny for failing to safeguard data collected by the firm.

Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, said that six people on his staff and his daughter were some of the 87 million notified by the company that information gleaned from their use of the platform had been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica, a political-consulting firm that aided President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

He raised concerns about how long data collected by Facebook are kept after an account is deleted

“How long do you keep a user's data after they’ve left?” Heller asked.

Zuckerberg said he did not know precisely.

“I don’t know the answer to that off the top of my head,” Zuckerberg said. “I know we try to delete it as quickly as is reasonable. We have a lot of complex systems and it takes a while to work through that.”

A media circus that lasted four-plus hours, the hearing gave senators, including those up for re-election in November, like Heller, a chance for a viral sound bite to demonstrate their passion and expertise regarding Internet privacy and consumer protections.

Heller—whose race has garnered national attention and is the only Republican running in a state Trump lost—made an effort to have his moment by asking Zuckerberg if the company had ever decided not to sell the data they collect because using the data would cross a line.

“Have you ever drawn the line on selling data to an advertiser?” Heller queried.

But Facebook doesn’t sell data to advertisers, which allowed Zuckerberg to correct Heller rather than delving into whether the company goes too far in using the data it collects on behalf of advertisers.

“We don’t sell data at all,” Zuckerberg said, adding that advertisers pay the company to use the data it collects from the platform to place the ad in front of those Facebook users who are likely to buy the product or service being advertised.

“This is one of the widely mischaracterized [things] about our system, that we sell data,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s actually one of the most important parts of how Facebook works...we do not sell data. Advertisers do not get access to people's individual data.”

Cambridge Analytica obtained the data it used from a developer, Aleksandr Kogan, not from Facebook. Kogan created an app, a personality quiz called “This Is Your Digital Life” that allowed him to harvest the personal data of the app users and gathered data from their Facebook friends. Kogan reportedly sold it to Cambridge Analytica, a move that violated Facebook policy.

Heller also probed Zuckerberg on surveillance, noting that it is an important issue in Nevada. He said he agreed with the company, which advocated last year for Congress to increase the transparency and privacy protections for the section 702 program of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Act, which gives the federal government the authority to broadly surveil electronic communication. Heller was a co-sponsor of a bill curtailing the program and voted against extending the program in January.

But he asked the Facebook CEO if he thought it was hypocritical that, while Zuckerberg backed transparency and privacy for the federal government, he profits from using the same data, but not with the same level of transparency and privacy. He repeated the erroneous notion that Facebook sells data, which detracted from the question.

“Do you believe that you are more responsible with millions of Americans’ personal data than the federal government would be?” Heller asked.

After a pause, Zuckerberg said “Yes.”

The tech executive also drew a distinction between government surveillance and Facebook’s use of data.

“When organizations do surveillance, people don’t have control over that,” Zuckerberg said. “But on Facebook, everything that you share there you have control over. You can say ‘I don’t want this information to be there.’ You have full access to understand every piece of information that Facebook might know about you and you can get rid of all of it. I don’t know of any surveillance organization in the world that operates that way, which is why I think that comparison isn’t really apt here.”

Heller also asked Zuckerberg if he thought he or his company were victims, to which he responded “no.” The Nevada Republican then asked if the 87 million who had their data improperly shared were victims.

“Senator, I think yes, they did not want their information sold to Cambridge Analytica by a developer and that happened and it happened on our watch,” Zuckerberg said. “So even though we didn’t do it, I think we have a responsibility to be able to prevent that and be able to take action sooner and to make sure we do that going forward.”  

The hearing, which included 44 senators, was a joint affair with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees trade and commerce issues, as well as monopolies, and the Commerce Committee, which oversees telecommunication issues, both participating. Heller and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat, both sit on the commerce panel.

When it was her turn to question Zuckerberg, Cortez Masto evinced a frustration with a lack of action from Facebook.

“I appreciate you being here, I appreciate the apology, but stop apologizing and make the change,” she said. “The skepticism that I have, and I’m hoping you can help me with this, is over the last seven years...I haven’t seen really much change in ensuring that the privacy is there and that individual users have control over their data.”

Cortez Masto pressed Zuckerberg on a 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) following allegations that the company deceived consumers on privacy matters.

She said that the settlement,  also known as a consent decree, required Facebook to stop making any further deceptive privacy claims; required the company to get consumers’ approval before changing the way it shares their data; and required Facebook to give users clear and conspicuous notice and to obtain affirmative, express consent before sharing their data with third parties.

“In response to the FTC consent decree to make changes, did you make those changes and what did you do to ensure that individual user data was protected and they had notice that potentially third parties would be accessing that?”

Zuckerberg said that the settlement led to the company establishing a “robust” privacy policy program.

But Cortez Masto, who didn’t leave much time for Zuckerberg to respond, believes that the company fell short on addressing privacy requirement called for by the FTC.

“It had to be something specific and something simple that did not occur. Had that occurred we wouldn’t be here today talking about Cambridge Analytica,” she said. “Isn’t that really true?"

“Had you addressed those issues then, had you done an audit, had you looked at the third-party applications and their associated data storage as well, you would have known that this type of data information was being shared,” she continued.

“And that is our concern. That is what I’m saying now,” Cortez Masto said. “It’s time to really address the privacy issues. It’s time to come and lead the country on this issue and how we can protect individual users data and information.”

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