We all remember Mark Zuckerberg's testimony in front of Congress last month. Or, if we do not remember everything he said, we certainly recall the fact that he was grilled for hours on end about his company's issues with privacy and other matters.
What you likely do not recall is testimony Facebook's lawyer gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee back in October of 2017. No, most probably skipped over what Colin Stretch had to say because, well, he's not Zuckerberg.
But looking back, it is apparent that Stretch may not have been entirely honest with his October 31st testimony. Given that he was under oath at the time, this is kind of a big deal.
Not surprisingly, privacy is the issue
Back then, Facebook, Google and Twitter executives were tasked with talking about foreign interference in our elections.
Representing Facebook, Stretch was tasked with explaining what his company was capable of. What could get him into trouble is a string of answers he gave when being grilled by Louisiana Senator John Kennedy. The Republican was inquiring about Facebook's ability to profile users, to which Stretch answered that the site did away with the ability for Facebook employees to do exactly that.
Essentially, Kennedy wanted to know if Facebook employees had the ability to take the data the site has on people and churn out an accurate and detailed profile of the person. After dodging the specifics of the question for a bit by saying there are rules in place to prevent that, Stretch finally had to answer the actual question.
Does Facebook have the ability to do it?
"We have designed our systems to prevent exactly that, to protect the privacy of our users," Stretch said. Furthermore, the lawyer was steadfast in his testimony that there is no way for Facebook employees to get around those systems to discover the identity of its users.
Yeah, about that...
A report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that a small group of Facebook employees can, in fact, access digital profiles. More than that, any time a Facebook employee's profile is viewed, the person gets a notification that it happened.
It's known as a "Sauron alert" (based on the all-seeing eye in the "Lord of the Rings" story), and it is something that does not happen for regular Facebook users like us.
To summarize: Facebook employees actually can access the data in profiles. That may not be much of a surprise, given what we've already learned about Facebook.
However, that them checking out a colleague's data sounds the alarm bells for the person whose information is being read really makes you realize that it's not a good thing for us. If it's not really a big deal, why would Facebook's employees get an alert about it?
If it is a big deal, why don't we?
So, what's next?
It will be interesting to see how Facebook responds to this becoming public. In a time where they are struggling to make people believe their platform cares about privacy, news like this is sure to cast even more doubt.
As for Stretch, giving false testimony while under oath amounts to perjury, which can lead to prison time.
Don't want Facebook to track you on the web?
Since people are now concerned about such matters, tools are being produced to help us. One of them comes courtesy of Mozilla, who is the company behind the web browser Firefox. Click here to learn more about how they are helping.