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Meta collected your data and then forgot where it kept it

Daniel Garrie: “What systems store the data necessary from that list to compile a single user's profile or profile once it's created?” Facebook's Eugene Zarashaw: “I don't believe there's a single person that exists who could answer that.

September 18, 2022 / 03:10 PM IST
When asked a simple question about where the company stores all the information it collects on users, two senior Facebook engineers said they didn’t really know.

When asked a simple question about where the company stores all the information it collects on users, two senior Facebook engineers said they didn’t really know.

Worried about all the data Facebook has collected on you? Maybe you can relax just a little bit. Not that the company, now renamed Meta, doesn’t collect, track and maintain enormous quantities of personal data. It does. In fact, in addition to Facebook-generated information, there is also the information generated by third parties and received from third parties. As is well-known, the social media giant collects enormous amounts of sensitive data from business partners, app developers, apps, and other sources.

So no, Facebook isn't off the hook. It remains a gigantic information collector and harvester.

The saving grace: it may not know exactly where it keeps the data and at a pinch may not even be able to pull it out easily!

In a hugely revealing piece by The Intercept, two senior Facebook engineers, when asked a simple question about where the company stores all the information it collects on users, said they didn’t really know.

In the wake of the 2015 Cambridge Analytica scandal in which Facebook was accused of breaching data protection laws by failing to keep users' personal information secure, its data collection operations have been facing intense scrutiny. In a hearing on the matter in the United States District Court of the Northern District of California, a transcript of which is available, Special Master Daniel Garrie who was presiding, asked the company’s representatives: "How does the user relationship to, just as an example, the ad - they view a page and they see an ad. How does that data get stored and captured and associated with the user so you don't show the same user the same ad 20 million times?"

Close

Replying to that, Eugene Zarashaw, a director of engineering at Facebook, was honest to say: "I'm not sure that we don't show the same user the same ad more than once. I'm not sure exactly how we store it - or I should say I'm not sure of all of the ways we store it.”

To another question from Garrie about “what systems store the data necessary from that list to compile a single user's profile or profile once it's created?”, Zarashaw’s reply is even more stunning: “I don't believe there's a single person that exists who could answer that. It would take a significant team effort to even be able to answer that question.”

Further into the examination, Garrie is even more incisive when he comments: “there's patents to predict all sorts of things about people that I assume are implemented somehow. So if you're able to infer someone's rate of being married or not, which is in one of your patents, or anything - you know, something of the like, that data is being inferred because I can't imagine users telling you "I think we're going to get divorced." So there has to be somewhere - at some level that data has to be aggregated out and inferred from the user activity, and then stored somewhere.”

Significantly, the three representatives from the company present in court, do not deny this. All that Zarashaw says is: “I just don't know offhand where we stored... it would take tracking down multiple people in the ads team to find out all of the systems that might store this.”

And while this may get a bit technical, he also admits down the line that “We have a somewhat strange engineering culture compared to most where we don't generate a lot of artifacts during the engineering process. Effectively the code is its own design document often.” Maybe this is regular and maybe it is not. Zarashaw certainly seems to think it is the latter, confessing: “For what it's worth, this is terrifying to me when I first joined as well.”

Terrifying indeed, not just for him but for all of us who have willingly and unwillingly shared all manner of our personal life with the media giant. If Meta doesn’t even know where our personal data is stored, can you be sure it has any control over how it is being used?
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Sep 18, 2022 11:12 am
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