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Financial data from users’ tax filing websites has been sent to Facebook

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Services including TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block were discovered transferring confidential data by the Markup.
The Markup has found that major tax preparation companies including H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer have been covertly sending private financial data to Facebook when Americans file their taxes online.

Data on names and email addresses as well as frequently even more specific information, such as information on users’ income, filing status, refund amounts, and dependents’ college scholarship amounts, are provided through a commonly used code known as the Meta Pixel.
Whether or whether the person utilizing the tax filing service has an account on Facebook or other platforms run by its owner Meta, the information transmitted to the firm can be utilized to power its advertising algorithms.

The Internal Revenue Service processes around 150 million computerized individual tax returns each year, and The Markup discovered that the pixel is used by some of the most popular e-filing firms.

For instance, users of the well-known service TaxAct are required to give personal information in order to calculate their returns, such as their income and investment information. According to an examination by The Markup, a pixel on TaxAct’s website then relayed some of that information to Facebook, including users’ filing status, their AGI, and the size of their return. Refunds were rounded up to the nearest hundred and income to the nearest thousand. Additionally, the pixel transmitted dependents’ names in an obscured but typically reversible manner.

The Markup discovered comparable financial data—but not names—being provided to Google through its service by TaxAct, which claims to have about 3 million “consumer and professional users” on its website.
The Meta Pixel was used by other tax filing services besides TaxAct. The world’s largest provider of tax preparation services, H&R Block, which additionally provides an online filing option that draws millions of customers each year, integrated a pixel on its website that collected data on users’ use of health savings accounts and the grants and costs associated with dependents’ college tuition.

As part of Facebook’s “advanced matching” system, which collects information on website visitors in an effort to connect them to Facebook accounts, TaxSlayer, a different popular filing service, submitted personal information to the social media corporation. Phone numbers, the name of the user filling out the form, and the names of any dependents added to the return were among the data collected by the pixel on TaxSlayer’s website. Similar to TaxAct, Facebook was able to link a user to an existing profile despite the fact that precise demographic information about the person was obscured. According to TaxSlayer, 10 million federal and state tax returns were completed last year.

The Markup also discovered the pixel code on a tax preparation website run by Ramsey Solutions, a firm that provides software and financial planning services and makes use of a TaxSlayer service. From a tax return summary page, that pixel collected even more sensitive data, such as details on income and refund amounts. This information was only supplied after users clicked drop-down headings to view more of their report’s details on the website.
The pixel was used by even Intuit, the business that handles America’s leading online file system. However, Intuit’s TurboTax only sent usernames and the most recent sign-in time to Meta instead of financial information. The company completely removed the pixel from all sites after sign-in.

The protection of our customers’ data is something we take very seriously, according to Nicole Coburn, a TaxAct spokesman, in an email. “TaxAct always attempts to abide by all IRS laws.” The business “frequently evaluate[s] our processes as part of our continuous commitment to privacy, and will assess the information,” according to H&R Block spokesperson Angela Davied.

In an email, Ramsey Solutions spokesperson Megan McConnell stated that the business “installed the Meta Pixel to give a more tailored customer experience.”

The statement read, “We did NOT know and were never told that Facebook was collecting personal tax information through the Pixel.” We quickly notified TaxSlayer to deactivate the Pixel from Ramsey SmartTax as soon as we learned of it.

TaxSlayer removed the pixel to assess its use, according to spokesman Molly Richardson, who responded to The Markup’s email. She said that Ramsey Solutions “decided to remove the pixel” as well, stressing that “our customers’ privacy is of the utmost importance” and that “we take concerns regarding our customers’ information extremely seriously.”

While Intuit “may share some non-tax-return information, such as username, with marketing partners to deliver a better customer experience,” like not showing Intuit ads on Facebook to people who have accounts already, the company’s pixel “does not track, gather, or share information that users enter in TurboTax while filing their taxes.” The business claimed to be in accordance with laws but changed the pixel so that usernames are no longer sent.
The Markup’s results, according to Mandi Matlock, a tax law lecturer at Harvard Law School, reveal that taxpayers are “giving some of the most sensitive information that they own, and it’s being exploited.”

This is horrible, she remarked. “It is, really.”

After The Markup approached TaxAct for comment, the company’s website stopped sending financial information to Meta on Monday, but it still received dependents’ identities. The website kept sending Google Analytics money-related data. Additionally, as of Monday, TurboTax ceased sending usernames through the pixel at sign-in, and TaxSlayer and Ramsey Solutions disabled the pixel from their tax filing websites. The website for H&R Block was still disseminating information on college tuition assistance and health savings accounts.

How Meta Pixel monitors users
Anyone who wants the pixel code can get it for free from Meta, which gives companies the freedom to use it wherever they want on their websites.

The businesses and Facebook both benefit from using the code. When a customer visits a company’s website, the pixel may keep track of the things they browsed, like a T-shirt, for instance. The company can locate an audience that could already be interested in its items by targeting its Facebook advertisements to people who looked at that shirt.
Meta also benefits financially. The business claims it can use the information it gathers from devices like the pixel to power its algorithms, giving it knowledge of people’ online behaviors.

Facebook has seen success with this tactic. The business informed Congress in 2018 that there were over 2 million pixels on the web, a significant data collection effort that most internet users never saw.

The technique is widespread, according to Jon Callas, director of public interest technology at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who described his reaction to The Markup’s findings as “shock but not surprise.”

The Markup’s analysis of sensitive data collection shows that some of it is related to the Meta Pixel’s default behaviors, while other instances appear to be the result of customizations made by tax filing services, people working on their behalf, or other software that has been installed on the website.

For instance, the normal setup of the Meta Pixel automatically collects the title of a page the user is seeing, along with the web address of the page and other data. This is how Meta Pixel gathered health savings account and college spending information from the H&R Block website. It was able to obtain salary data from Ramsey Solutions because it was presented as a summary that could be enlarged by clicking. The pixel identified the summary as being a button, because by default, the pixel captures text from a clicked button.
Automatic advanced matching was a feature used in the TaxSlayer and TaxAct pixels. This function examines forms for areas where it suspects there may be personally identifiable data, such as a phone number, first name, last name, or email address, and then transmits any such data it finds to Meta. This function on TaxSlayer’s website gathered contact information and the names of taxpayers and their dependents. It gathered dependents’ names on TaxAct.

According to Meta, the hashing method used to encrypt the data supplied by the matching feature is done so in order to “help preserve user privacy.” The pre-obfuscated version of the data may, however, usually be found by the corporation. In fact, Meta specifically used the hashed data to connect additional pixel data to Facebook and Instagram identities.

When The Markup created a test pixel linked to a business account, this pixel functionality was disabled by default but could be enabled by selecting a toggle during setup.

A “custom event,” which is sent only if the pixel is specified outside of the default by a website operator or another application the website operator adds to their site, is what TaxAct used to send dollar figures like adjusted gross income to Meta. Inquiries about whether and why TaxAct configured the pixel in this way went unanswered.

There are restrictions on the kinds of data that Meta claims the pixel will allow it to gather. The corporation claims that it uses automatic filtering to block potentially sensitive data and does not want sensitive information, including financial data, delivered to it. According to its help center, providing information such as bank account or credit card details or “knowledge regarding an individual’s financial account or status” is prohibited.

Still, The Markup discovered that two tax sites supplied Facebook one specific form of banned data – income. TaxAct may have also been transmitting a parameter with the name “student loan interest” before the pixel started filtering it before it was delivered, according to data it supplied to Facebook.
The Markup monitored websites’ pixel usage from January to July of this year as part of the Pixel Hunt, a collaboration with Mozilla Rally. Participants in the initiative installed a browser extension that gave The Markup a copy of all the information given with Meta via the pixel.

Through data given by Pixel Hunt participants, The Markup first learned that tax preparers were disclosing sensitive information. The Markup subsequently created accounts on the businesses’ websites and used the “Network” portion of Chrome DevTools, a feature included with Google’s Chrome browser, to reproduce and validate the data.

The Markup discovered sensitive data transferred to Facebook earlier this year with the aid of Pixel Hunt participants on the Education Department’s federal student aid application website, crisis pregnancy websites, and the websites of prominent hospitals.

Because Meta gathers so much information, occasionally even the firm doesn’t know where it goes. In a leaked memo from Facebook’s privacy engineers earlier this year, Vice reported that the firm couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t use specific data for specific objectives because it “does not have an acceptable level of control and explainability over how our systems use data.”
Facebook has “extensive systems and controls to handle data and comply with privacy standards,” a corporate spokeswoman claimed at the time, according to Vice.

Dale Hogan, a representative for Meta, referred to the organization’s policies on sensitive financial information in answer to The Markup’s inquiries over the use of the pixel by the tax websites.

Hogan stated in an email that advertisers “should not transmit sensitive information about people through our Business Tools.” “Doing so is against our regulations, and we train advertisers on how to set up Business tools correctly to avoid this,” the statement reads. Our technology is built to weed out any potentially sensitive information it can find.

An email from a Google representative, Jackie Berté, stated that the company “has strict policies against advertising to people based on sensitive information” and that Google Analytics data is “obfuscated, meaning it is not tied back to an individual.” Additionally, she added, “our policies prohibit customers from sending us data that could be used to identify a user.”

Tax data is strictly regulated by the IRS.
Between 2001 and 2019, Nina Olson, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Taxpayer Rights, served as the Internal Revenue Service’s national taxpayer advocate, a position in the organization designed to represent the interests of taxpayers.

She helped draft the rules governing the disclosure of tax information as part of her responsibilities at the IRS. Olson stated that the IRS standards governing the use of data by private tax filing firms are “extremely stringent” on purpose.

According to the rules she helped create, tax preparers, including e-filing companies, are only permitted to use the information that taxpayers provide for certain limited purposes; anything beyond simply facilitating filing requires the user’s signed consent that specifies the recipient and the specific information being disclosed.

Even the font size of requests for disclosure is regulated by the government, which states that it must be “the same size as, or larger than, the typical or standard body text used by the website or software program.”

While Olson said she was not aware of any criminal cases that had been pursued, the penalty for sharing data without consent could be severe: fines and even jail time are possible.

The Markup searched the websites of tax preparation services for disclosures that expressly named Facebook or Meta, but it was unable to locate any. Some businesses, however, incorporated rather extensive disclosure agreements.

For instance, TaxAct asked customers to consent to the sibling firm, TaxSmart Research LLC, receiving their tax information so that it may “create, promote, and provide goods and services” for users. TaxSmart Research LLC may work with service providers and business partners to complete these responsibilities, it was further stated. In contrast, H&R Block included almost the same disclosure request so that “H&R Block Personalized Services, LLC” could offer its own products. Although users had the choice to opt out of sharing tax information with Facebook on certain sites, The Markup’s tests revealed that data was shared with Facebook regardless of the users’ choices.

According to Olson, any disclosure by a tax preparer must specify the precise objective and recipient in order to be in compliance. Do they have a list stating that they will reveal the return amounts, your children, and whatever else on Facebook? she questioned. If not, they might be breaking the law. Regarding whether any of the websites that shared tax information were in violation of the law, the IRS declined to comment or respond to any inquiries.

There is no escape for taxpayers
There aren’t many options available to American taxpayers outside using private businesses to file their taxes.

In contrast to other nations, the United States has a substantially privatized tax filing system that frequently necessitates the employment of outside tax preparers. In other nations, the taxpayers simply give their approval to the estimates that the government does. However, as a result of a successful lobbying campaign by private businesses, tax preparers in the US now serve as the official go-between for taxpayers and the government.

Today, tax preparation is a significant sector in the United States, worth more than $11 billion, according to market research.

Although there is a free preparation and filing alternative, it is only available to those making $73,000 or less and might be challenging to utilize. Companies are accused for not making the option easily accessible even when they provide their tax software at no cost as part of an agreement with the IRS.

The Markup discovered using the pixel that the IRS even successfully guides taxpayers attempting to file for free to some of the businesses. The Free File Alliance, an arrangement including a few tax preparation firms, includes TaxAct and TaxSlayer. H&R Block and TurboTax have previously participated in the program.

Harvard’s Matlock claimed that The Markup’s findings demonstrated the nearly unavoidable implications of entrusting a government requirement to for-profit businesses. According to her, the procedure leaves users with no alternative but to give their data to Facebook in order to comply with the law.

It’s aggravating, she added, since taxpayers are being forced into the hands of these private, for-profit businesses in order to fulfill their tax filing duties. “Really, we don’t have a choice in the issue.”

As Editor here at GeekReply, I'm a big fan of all things Geeky. Most of my contributions to the site are technology related, but I'm also a big fan of video games. My genres of choice include RPGs, MMOs, Grand Strategy, and Simulation. If I'm not chasing after the latest gear on my MMO of choice, I'm here at GeekReply reporting on the latest in Geek culture.

Artificial Intelligence

The Matter standard is now supported by Google’s smart home appliances

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Only if goods truly support it can the Matter standard facilitate the use of smart home appliances from different brands. You don’t even need to download or install any updates because Google has just announced that it has enabled Matter compatibility for its Nest and Android devices. This means that Matter can now be controlled by the Google Home speaker, Google Home Mini, Nest Mini, Nest Audio, Nest Hub (1st and 2nd gen), Nest Hub Max, and the new Nest WiFi Pro.

Additionally, Google has made Matter compatibility available for Fast Pair on Android, which will let you to connect Matter-enabled devices to your home network “as rapidly as you can pair a set of headphones.” This functionality will make it simple to integrate your devices with apps and smart home ecosystems once they are linked. The tech behemoth has also upgraded the Nest Wi Pro, Nest Hub Max, and Nest Hub (2nd gen) to include Thread border router functionality. In this manner, you can utilize them to link items that support Thread, the networking standard for low-power gadgets like smart locks.

Since 2019, the Connectivity Standards Alliance, of which Google is a member, has been working on the Matter standard to address the fragmentation issue in the smart home market and make it simpler to use products from various manufacturers. It had to postpone Matter’s release a few times before it was eventually able to roll out the standard’s version 1.0 definition and product certification program this October. It had originally planned to introduce the standard in 2021. Soon after Matter was released, Samsung said that it is collaborating with Google to make it simple to add devices that are already configured with SmartThings to Google Home and vice versa. One of the other founders of the Alliance, Amazon, also provided a list of the 17 Echo devices that will support the standard as of this month.

The number of products that are Matter-enabled is now somewhat small, but according to Google, this holiday season and early 2023 will witness an increase. With the exception of the aforementioned Google items, all devices that implement the standard will be identified by the Matter badge and will function with all other Matter devices right out of the box.

 

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CES 2023 :Learn the latest information from the greatest technology event of the year

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Although the CES doesn’t start until tomorrow, we’re back in Vegas for the event, and several exhibitors have already shown their new items at numerous press conferences and media events. In addition to more news from TV manufacturers, gaming laptop manufacturers, smart home firms, and other companies, we are starting to see some of the early automotive news that typically headlines CES today. Here is a summary of the top news from Day 1 of CES 2023 in case you haven’t caught up yet.

Since last night
But first, even though we covered the most of yesterday’s launches in a different video, more things were announced last night after we had finished filming that. For instance, Withings demonstrated the $500 pee-scanning U-Scan toilet computer.

It’s a 90mm block that you install inside your toilet bowl as a deodorizer and employs a microfluidic device that functions like a litmus test to identify the components in your pee. Although Withings is developing a consumer-focused version that will evaluate your nutrition and hydration levels and forecast your ovulation and period cycles, you will need to decide the precise tests you wish to run in your module. Prior to launching in the US, it is still awaiting regulatory approval from the European Union.

We also witnessed the Fufuly pulsing cushion by Yukai Engineering, which was less… gross news. Although a vibrating cushion may sound like something out of an anime, the concept is that cuddling something that might simulate real-life pulsation may have calming effects. Another thing that could calm anxiety? watching a video of adorable birds! Additionally, Bird Buddy unveiled a brand-new intelligent feeder with a built-in camera so you can watch your feathered friends while they build nests. The most recent version, which is intended for hummingbirds, uses AI to recognize the different breeds that are in the area and, in conjunction with a motion sensor, determines when they are ready for a feast.

Speaking of nibbles, there was a ton of food-related technology news last night, like as the $1,000 stand mixer from GE Profile that has a digital scale and voice controls. We also observed OneThird’s freshness scanners, which determine the freshness of produce using near-infrared lasers and secret algorithms. Even the shelf life of an avocado can be determined instantly, preventing food waste!

We also witnessed the Wisear neural earbuds that let you control playback by clenching your jaw, the blood pressure monitor that hooks onto your finger from Valencell, and Loreal’s robotic lipstick applicator for people with limited hand or arm mobility. Smart speakers, smart pressure cookers, smart VR gloves, smart lights, and more were available.

Let’s move on to the recent news. Prior to the onslaught that is set to happen tomorrow, there was only a little trickle of auto news. Volkswagen debuted the ID.7 EV sedan, tempting us with only the name and a rough body form. BMW, meanwhile, revealed the I Vision Dee, or “Digital Emotional Experience,” to provide additional information about its futuristic I Vision concept vehicle development. It’s a simplified design with a heads-up display that spans the entire front windshield. Many of the Dee’s characteristics are anticipated to be incorporated into production vehicles starting in 2025, notably BMW’s new NEUE KLASSE (new class) EV platform. BMW’s Mixed Reality slider will also be available on the Dee to regulate how much digital stuff is shown on the display.

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TVs
The premium 2023 TVs from Samsung were also not unveiled until the evening, with this year’s models emphasizing on MiniLED and 8K technologies. Additionally, it added more sizes to its selection and unveiled new soundbars with Dolby Atmos capability at all price points. While this was going on, competitor LG unveiled a 97-inch M3 TV that can wirelessly receive 4K 120Hz content, allowing you to deal with fewer connections in your living room and… more soundbars. Leave it to LG and Samsung to essentially duplicate each other’s actions.

Hisense, a competitor with comparatively smaller TVs, today announced its 85-inch UX Mini LED TV, which has more than 5,000 local dimming zones and a maximum brightness of 2,500 nits. Startup Displace, meanwhile, demonstrated a brand-new 55-inch wireless OLED TV that can be attached to any surface via vacuum suction, doing away entirely with the requirement for a wall mount or stand. You can even live without a power cord thanks to its four inbuilt batteries. Essentially, this is a fully functional, portable TV.

Laptops

We also noticed more HP, MSI, and ASUS laptops. A laptop with glasses-free 3D, a sizable Zenbook Pro 16X with lots of space for thermal dissipation, and a Zenbook 14X with a ceramic build are all products of ASUS. Both of the latter Zenbooks include OLED displays. In the meantime, HP unveiled a new line of Dragonfly Pro laptops that are designed to simplify the purchasing process for customers by removing the majority of configuration options. The Windows version exclusively uses an AMD CPU and has a column of hotkeys on the right of the keyboard that provide shortcuts to camera settings, a control center, and 24/7 tech support, whilst the Dragonfly Pro Chromebook has an RGB keyboard and Android-like Material You theming capabilities. The last of these buttons can be programmed to open a particular program, file, or website.

The first of some audio news is now being presented to us, starting with JBL. The business presented its array of five soundbar models for 2023, all of which will support Dolby Atmos. New true wireless earbuds with a “smart” casing including a 1.45-inch touchscreen and controls for volume, playback, ANC, and EQ presets were also introduced. Nearly simultaneously, HP unveiled the Poly Voyager earphones, which are comparable to the JBL in terms of controls and have a touchscreen on the carrying case. However, the Voyager also features a Broadcast mode that enables you to connect the case to an older device with a headphone port (like while you’re on an airline) via the provided 3.5mm to USB-C connection, so you can view movies during a flight without having to bring along a second set of headphones.

Not only today but also the remainder of the week will see a ton more CES news. I was unable to tell you about Citizen’s latest wristwatch or Samsung’s new, more affordable Galaxy A14 smartphone. Keep checking back for updates on all CES 2023 news.

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Concerns Regarding Free PSVR2 Upgrades Book II of Raised by Moss, Moss

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When Sony’s next VR headset launches in February 2023, the PSVR classics Moss and Moss: Book II will have native PSVR2 editions, but the catch for current owners is that they’ll have to pay full price to play them. There isn’t even a paid upgrade route, Polyarc has confirmed to Push Square, and neither title will be eligible for free PSVR to PSVR2 upgrades.

Due to a 10% PS Store discount, Moss will instead be available for $17.99, while its sequel will cost $26.99. This price is expected to expire soon. As an alternative, you can get them both together for $34.99.

Lincoln Davis, director of communications for Polyarc, provided the following explanation as to why the company chose this course of action: “For PSVR2 owners who previously bought the PSVR versions of the games, cross-buying is not configured for those titles. The appropriate implementation of new platforms for works like Moss and Moss: Book II requires a lot of time and money. And in this instance, the majority of that work was devoted to fine-tuning both games to offer gamers improved experiences that take advantage of the new hardware technology.”

According to the creator, the PSVR2 versions are configured to benefit from all the features the Sony headset boasts of, including haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, eye tracking, and a larger field of view. Additionally, it will utilize a 4K resolution at 90 frames per second with enhanced lighting and texture.

Although they claim to utilise the same features and provide a free PSVR to PSVR2 upgrade, games like After the Fall and No Man’s Sky will. It puts PSVR2 buyers in the frustrating position of having to pay for some titles all over again while receiving free access to others that promise the same exact improvements. If you want to purchase the updated version of a game you already own, Polyarc isn’t even going the Sony route and offering a $10 upgrade path. Instead, individuals who purchase the smartphone on launch day must pay full price.

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