Facebook's Use of Data May Annoy You, But IRS Handling of Your Sensitive Information Is Truly Chilling

When it comes to mishandling the details of your life, social media has nothing on the tax man.


Yoko Aziz/agefotostock/Newscom

As we argue over the propriety of Facebook hoovering up personal (but not especially sensitive) information that users voluntarily gave to the social media company, it's a good time to remember that many of us are right now surrendering delicate details of our life to an even less trustworthy entity—the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—and we have no choice.

Using a feature of Facebook that was abandoned in 2015, third-party apps were, for several years, able to compile fairly detailed profiles on users who installed them. Among other destinations, the information made it to political campaigns for use in targeted electioneering (variously characterized as innovative when the Obama campaign bragged about its tech savvy, and nefarious when it benefited Trump). This info-siphoning struck many people as creepy as hell (almost certainly why Facebook killed the feature three years ago), but it was based on freely surrendered data through a service that nobody was compelled to use. Anybody uncomfortable with Facebook's policies can just close their account (or creatively populate it with bogus info).

By contrast, you can't just walk away from IRS demands for the details of your finances, your business, your property, and your family. The tax agency gets very pissy, indeed, if you turn up your nose at demands for information, warning that "the IRS may assess penalties to taxpayers for both failing to file a tax return and for failing to pay taxes they owe by the deadline."

Boris Johnson, when he was mayor of London (you, know, in the U.K.), was slapped with an enormous tax bill by the United States IRS because he was born in this country, though he left by the age of 5. The only way he was able to escape threats of arrest should he ever return to the land of his dimly remembered childhood was to pay the tab and then renounce his American citizenship.

The purposes to which the IRS turns that extracted data are more chilling, too—and that's just if we're talking about the intentional funding of an ever-metastasizing state that exists to push you around and turn out your pockets to fund its efforts to become yet pushier. By comparison, targeted political messages at which you roll your eyes before scrolling by are nothing but minor annoyances. You have nobody to blame but yourself if you actually pay attention to those ads.

But the IRS has a pretty impressive history of not just putting coercively extracted information to questionable uses, but also of storing it carelessly, leaking data through every possible conduit, and hiring employees who appear to only marginally prefer a career in tax collection over knocking over liquor stores. That is, it might be fun to see Mark Zuckerberg field a battery of ill-informed and frankly stupid questions from those members of our society diagnosed as senators. But it would be much more productive if a long line of IRS employees stood behind him, awaiting their turn.

Ryan Payne, for instance could have taken a few moments to field some questions about the course of events that led the former IRS agent to plead guilty earlier this year to using other people's Social Security numbers—information acquired during business audits—while applying for a loan and a bank account.

For their part, Della Ornelas and Randall Ruff could have delved into their long and mutual interest in combining tax collection with fraud—shared tastes that led them first to multi-decade careers at the IRS, to marriage, and then prison.

Maybe senators could have pressed representatives of The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration about their puzzlement, expressed in a February report, as to why "the IRS issued more than $1.7 million in awards to 1,962 employees who had a disciplinary or adverse action… Some of these employees had serious misconduct such as unauthorized access to tax return information, substance abuse, and sexual misconduct."

And then there are the over 700,000 Social Security numbers and other sensitive records swiped by hackers from IRS computers over the past couple of years. Yes, that's far smaller than the millions of records shared by Facebook. But the social media data featured information about preferences and beliefs that people voluntarily shared—even if they didn't intend it to go to a marketing company. The IRS data, meanwhile, included information few people would surrender in the absence of threatened fines, penalties, and imprisonment. That kind of breach carries serious consequences.

How serious? Well, when hackers extracted information on nearly 100,000 college students from the IRS Data Retrieval Tool last year in a separate breach, they were able to steal upwards of $30 million. And the victims remain at risk of ongoing identity theft because of the sensitive nature of the information the tax agency forces us to file.

The IRS itself estimates that it paid out $5.8 billion worth of bogus refunds in 2013 as a result of identity theft. And there's no greater repository of sensitive information—and apparently no worse guardian of that data—than the tax agency.

So it's understandable that you're annoyed when you sign into your social media account and you contemplate the potential uses of your pictures and posts. But the logical reaction, as you file required information for tax day with the IRS, is less annoyance and more a healthy dose of fear.

NEXT: Trump's Lawyer Michael Cohen Has a Bad Day In Court: Reason Roundup

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  1. Privacy is dead. Might as well get used to it. “Let anyone among you who is not living in a glass house be the first to throw stones,” as a wise man once explained.

    1. Privacy is dead.

      Assuming encryption isn’t completely broken privacy isn’t dead. The problem is SCOTUS invented a ‘right to privacy’ and falsely conflated it with a right to private property or a right to be made secure in property and effects (against seizure by the government).

      People were given the idea that their information, which can be copied and shared endlessly and can be recreated with some or even a complete lack of direct knowledge is owned by them and that the government is responsible for effecting their rights to ownership (despite the fact that the information can be copied and shared endlessly and that you can effectively recreate information to which you have no direct access).

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        go? to tech tab for work detail,,,

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    2. Privacy is only dead if you let it be dead. Giving up on privacy is NOT the answer.

  2. I find it surreal to live in a society defined by denial, where people freak out about other people using information to influence other people’s thoughts, to ultimately influence political outcomes.

    Yeah: that’s called “democracy.” If the idea of millions of people making bad decisions with bad information that directly influence you against your will bothers you, then, I hate to tell you, we’ve been doing it a long time.

    1. It’s like the people complaining about big money in politics, and people “buying” elections. Nothing is stopping anybody from voting for whomever the hell they want. It is brainwashed Republicans and Democrats who are responsible for electing corrupt people into politics, not “big money”.

      1. This notion that people don’t have any self-agency is an attack on democracy itself.

        1. People can only vote for who is on the ballot.

          1. They don’t do write-in candidates anymore?

        2. Actually, I find this an amazing insight to self-realization among The People, though I suspect most People think it describes others but not them.

      2. It’s like the people complaining about big money in politics, and people “buying” elections.

        That’s only when the wrong person wins. When the right person outspends their opponent and wins, it’s a triumph of democracy.

  3. Reason has an article on IRS abuses and fails to mention Lois Lerner and the Obama administration’s using the IRS to go after the Tea Party and other political undesirables. Maybe Turcille thinks those deplorables had it coming to them or something. Or maybe it slipped his mind. I would love to hear how he managed not to mention that.

    1. What’s Koskinen up to these days?

      1. Isn’t it still the head of the IRS? What a scumbag.

        1. His term ended last fall.

    2. Maybe because the article is mostly focused on individual criminals hired and enabled by the IRS and not systemic top-down corruption perpetrated by the IRS? You probably don’t have to worry about arch-ancap Tucille being a closeted Obama partisan.

      1. I didn’t say he was. Maybe he forgot about it. I am always willing to accept stupid as an explanation. I don’t see how going after people for their politics doesn’t count as misusing information.

        1. Well, i’m sorry 2chili didn’t write the exact article you wanted him to write. Does this help make up for it?

    3. Because that’s not what the article is about? The article is specifically about the misuse of individual data. It’s not about general abuses. It’s not about the agency being used a political tool. It’s about the failure to protect and respect the individual data of tax filers.

    4. That’s abuse of power – the one thing the jellyfish in the GOP wouldn’t touch Clinton on during his impeachment. Precedent matters, as we know, so giving Obama a pass on weaponizing his departments against the people to the benefit of his party made sense to Boehner and company. Bunch of wankers.

  4. Something something… “cost of civilization”… mumble mumble…

  5. Related:

    “Facebook is complicated, but Congress should figure out regulations”
    “When it comes to regulating Facebook, Congress is in over its head. But does that matter?”

    NYT writer says we have to regulate it to find out what’s in it.

    1. When it comes to regulating Facebook, Congress is in over its head. But does that matter?

      When has that ever mattered to Congress?

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  7. Our SS numbers have been hijacked by government entities all around to serve as a national ID, which is what gives value to the IRS data in the first place. Only because it’s used all over the place is the information valuable: your banker, insurer, hospital, DMV… the list is endless. The privacy act of 1974 doesn’t mean anything today, if it ever was meant to – the “administrative purposes” combined with BLS access means anything submitted to the IRS is pretty much in the wild. Do we need a national ID card to help firewall the IRS by reducing the value of its information? Maybe.

  8. My Buddy’s mom makes $77 hourly on the computer . She has been laid off for five months but last month her check was $18713 just working on the computer for a few hours. try this web-site


  9. I can tell by the frequent emails I receive that Reason has been selling my data for a while.

    What to do? What to do?

    How about just ignore it?

  10. Mungkin karena artikelnya kebanyakan berfokus pada kriminal individu yang dipekerjakan dan diaktifkan oleh IRS dan bukan korupsi top-down sistemik yang dilakukan oleh IRS? Anda mungkin tidak perlu khawatir tentang arch-ancap Tucille menjadi partisan Obama yang tertutup.

  11. Jika gagasan jutaan orang membuat keputusan buruk dengan informasi buruk yang secara langsung memengaruhi Anda terhadap keinginan Anda akan mengganggumu, maka, aku benci untuk memberitahumu, kita sudah melakukannya sejak lama. Gagasan bahwa orang-orang tidak memiliki agen-diri adalah serangan terhadap demokrasi itu sendiri.

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