House members sent a letter Wednesday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seeking more information about the social media giant’s new rules for political ad buys.
While members of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee insisted they “support efforts to ensure the integrity of social media platforms,” they expressed reservations about Facebook collecting the last four digits of the Social Security numbers of those purchasing political ads on the web platform.
“Given the bipartisan concerns about the problem of identity theft, including the risk associated with SSNs being stolen, it is important for us to understand how these numbers will be used and how they will be protected,” wrote subcommittee chairman Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, and ranking member, Rep. John Larson, Connecticut Democrat. They were joined by a bipartisan group of 18 other subcommittee members, according to a press release.
Facebook, based in California, said their use of the last 4 digits of a Social Security number would be routine.
“We want to make sure people on Facebook know who is behind the political and issue ads they see, which is why we require those types of advertisers to prove to us who they are,” said Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management in a statement. “We don’t use the information they submit for anything other than verifying an advertiser’s identity, we encrypt it, and we delete it after the authorization is complete.”
For years many companies have used the last 4 digits of a person’s Social Security number as a means of identification, and it remained unclear how far the subcommittee may go on this path, given Facebook just announced its policy.
But the letter made it clear the subcommittee’s concerns appear more far-reaching than simply the announcement they’d sent new questions to Mr. Zuckerberg.
Mr. Zuckerberg is no stranger to congressional oversight. In April, he appeared on Capitol Hill to answer questions about how information companies had culled from Facebook’s vast database on members that was then used to hone ads in President Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Facebook had allowed Barack Obama’s team to use Facebook data in his 2012 re-election campaign, maneuvering that was hailed as cutting edge by many political experts, but Cambridge Analytica’s similar business caused a furor when it was employed by Mr. Trump’s team.
In his testimony, Mr. Zuckerberg assured lawmakers Facebook was serious about protecting consumers’ privacy, and that it would take steps to prevent its increasingly encyclopedic knowledge of members’ consumer tastes and the like to be mined by politicians.
Subcommittee members insisted in their Wednesday letter that political considerations were not involved in their request for more information about a policy change Facebook announced since Mr. Zuckerberg’s congressional appearance.
Yet in a climate where the ability or willingness of social media behemoths to protect consumers’ privacy is suspect, and at a time when protections of Social Security numbers have already eroded, the representatives said they had concerns about the efficacy of Facebook’s new policy.
“Authenticators based on personal information only work if that information is kept private, but hundreds of millions of SSNs are effectively no longer confidential because of massive data breaches and availability on the dark web,” subcommittee members wrote. “At the same time, the continued use of SSNs as either an identifier or an authenticator (or both) for everything from enrolling a child in school to creating a credit record is what makes them so valuable to identity thieves and cybercriminals.”
• James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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