WSU professor says IRS is breaking privacy laws by mining social media

NewImageVia the Spokesman Review

Those Facebook posts from your vacation on a white sand beach, or that purchase of a fancy new vehicle, could be attracting views from the federal government.

As its staff shrinks, the Internal Revenue Service has turned to mining social media and large data sets in search of taxpayers to audit, a Washington State University professor says in a recent report in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law.

People should be aware “that what they say and do online” could be used against them by the IRS, said Kimberly Houser, an associate professor of business law in WSU’s Carson College of Business.

Her 55-page report is studded with examples of how the IRS has turned to social media and data analytics for enforcement, including a 2013 fraud case in which a Florida woman was convicted after bragging about being the ‘Queen of Tax Fraud’ on Facebook.


The IRS has a long history of using audits for political purposes, Houser said. One of the more recent examples is when the IRS was accused of targeting conservative organizations affiliated with the tea party. The IRS also has had major data breaches, she said.

“The IRS is not the entity I want maintaining these records,” Houser said.

Hauser said she’d like to see an oversight office “watching what the IRS is doing with data.”

“We have laws in place to prevent the government from doing certain things with our data,” she said, “and it doesn’t seem like the IRS is complying.”