In a startling expose of data transacting, the Markup offers a detailed report on how students who completed the Free Application For Student Aid had their private information trafficked to Facebook.
The Markup found that code embedded in the website where students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, was automatically sending the data to Facebook. The data was being collected even if the visitor to the site did not have a Facebook account and began even before the user logged in to studentaid.gov, the site that hosts the form.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education initially denied that the tracking had occurred in an email to The Markup. After publication, Federal Student Aid chief operating officer Richard Cordray sent a statement to The Markup saying that, as “part of a March 22 advertising campaign,” the agency changed its tracking settings. “This inadvertently caused some StudentAid.gov user information that falls outside of FSA’s normal collection efforts, such as a user’s first and last name, to be tracked.”
The revelation is a remarkable view of Facebook’s reach as a single-sign-on gateway even for government-managed properties, and the lack of review on the part of the government to monitor this kind of data access. The possibilities for Facebook in pitching companies on how to market colleges and universities, the ways in which algorithms can be directed specifically to influence millions of prospective students and, the notion that even non-Facebook users can have tailored made exposure if and when they decide to join, are endless.