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Report: Tax Preparation Software Returned Personal Consumer Data to Meta and Google

 

As per The Markup, popular tax preparation software such as TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block sent sensitive financial information to Facebook's parent company Meta via its widely used code known as a pixel, which helps developers track user activity on their sites. 

In accordance with a report published on Tuesday by The Verge, Meta pixel trackers in the software sent information such as names, email addresses, income information, and refund amounts to Meta, violating its policies. The Markup also discovered that TaxAct sent similar financial data to Google via its analytics tool, though the data did not include names.

According to CNBC, Meta employs tiny pixels that publishers and businesses embed on their websites. When you visit, the dots send a message back to Facebook. It also enables businesses to target advertisements to people based on previous websites they have visited.

Based on the report, Facebook could use data from tax websites to power its advertising algorithms even if the person using the tax service does not have a Facebook account. It's yet another example of how Facebook's tools can be utilized to track people across the internet, even if users are unaware of it. According to some statements provided to The Markup, it could have been a mistake.

Ramsey Solutions, a financial advice and software company that uses TaxSlayer, told The Markup that it "NOT KNEW and was never alerted that personal tax information was being gathered by Facebook from the Pixel," and that the company informed TaxSlayer to deactivate the Pixel tracking from SmartTax.

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.” 

H&R Block further stated in a statement on Wednesday that it had "removed the pixels from its DIY online product to stop any client tax information from being collected."

The Markup discovered the data trail earlier this year while working with Mozilla Rally on a project called "Pixel Hunt," in which participants installed a browser extension that sent the group a copy of data shared with Meta via its pixel.

“Advertisers should not send sensitive information 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.”

Meta considers potentially sensitive data to contain information about income, loan amounts, and debt status.

“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.”

A TaxAct spokesperson said in a statement, “The privacy of our customers is very important to all of us at TaxAct, and we continue to comply with all laws and IRS regulations. Data provided to Facebook is used at an aggregate level, not the individual level, by TaxAct to analyze our advertising effectiveness. TaxAct is not using the information provided by its customers and referenced in the report issued by The Markup to target advertising with Facebook.”

A TaxSlayer representative did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.