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Google and Meta caught harvesting your sensitive financial information through tax prep software
By Lance D Johnson // Nov 24, 2022

Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) harvest sensitive financial information from individuals without their consent. An investigation by The Markup finds that Google and Meta go to the extreme and collect financial data through popular tax preparation software, including TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer. The private financial information is covertly sent through Meta Pixel and includes anything submitted through tax forms like names, filing status, dependents, email addresses, income information, investments, and refund amounts.

According to Meta’s policies, Meta Pixel is required to filter out potentially sensitive data. However, Meta pixel  routinely violates individual privacy, collecting important personal information that is used to build a personal profile on users and non-users alike, so third-party advertisers can exploit consumers well into the future.

Meta Pixel and Google analytics siphon private financial information from tax software

Meta Pixel is a piece of code that web developers and online marketers use to measure the effectiveness of an advertising campaign. This code tracks the actions people take on a website to better understand their interests and buying habits. The pixels are embedded into websites; they track the sites individuals previously visited and learn about consumer behavior. This information is communicated back to Facebook and third party advertisers. Meta Pixel is used to optimize advertisements on websites, to help websites find new customers, and to help businesses target the right audience. This information allows companies to market more efficiently using target ads.

In the latest investigation, Meta Pixel trackers were used in tax preparation software to glean sensitive financial information. The investigation also found out that Google uses its analytics tool to glean similar financial information through TaxAct. The investigation found that H&R Block gathered information on filers’ health savings accounts and dependents’ college tuition grants and expenses. Intuit’s TurboTax does not use pixel beyond sign-in, but they did collect information before sign in, including usernames and the last time a device signed in.

The Markup claims that the information obtained from tax websites can be used in Google and Facebook algorithms to enhance target ads. The report also claims that the information can be used to target market to anyone, whether or not they use Google or Facebook.

Facebook and Google violate their own policies and fail to have an enforcement plan for privacy violations

When pressed on the issue, a Meta spokesperson defended the company’s privacy policy, but they did not address how they were going to enforce the policy against egregious violations of privacy. “Advertisers should not send sensitive information (including income, loan amounts and debt status) about people through our Business Tools,” a Meta spokesperson told CNBC in a statement. “Doing so is against our policies and we educate advertisers on properly setting up Business tools to prevent this from occurring. Our system is designed to filter out potentially sensitive data it is able to detect.”

When Google was pressed on the issue, they too defended their policies, without any mention of enforcement. “Any data in Google Analytics is obfuscated, meaning it is not tied back to an individual and our policies prohibit customers from sending us data that could be used to identify a user,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC. “Additionally, Google has strict policies against advertising to people based on sensitive information.”

When the news broke, the tax software companies began making changes. TaxSlayer already removed pixels from their tax filing sites, and TurboTax stopped sending usernames through the pixel at sign-in. An H&R Block spokesperson said the company takes “protecting our clients’ privacy very seriously, and we are taking steps to mitigate the sharing of client information via pixels.” For million of people who use tax prep software, it may be too little, too late.

For more on this issue, check out PrivacyWatch.News.

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