Following news reports that Facebook paid teenagers and adults to collect their sensitive personal data, U.S. Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA) wrote to Facebook demanding answers about the Project Atlas market research program. In separate letters to Apple and Google, the bipartisan members called on the companies to do more to protect their customers from intrusive monitoring practices.
Earlier this month, reporting by TechCrunch and others found that Facebook had secretly operated Project Atlas, a commercial research program that involved paying teenagers and adults to install to a mobile app that allowed Facebook to monitor users’ phones and web browsing history.
In advertisements and recruitment efforts, Facebook aggressively targeted teenagers and did not appear to adequately verify parental consent. The company also failed to provide participants with sufficient information about how it would collect, use, or keep their private data. In recent cases involving market research programs at Sears and Lenovo, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that, even when paid, such programs must fully disclose the types of data collected and purposes for monitoring, particularly when programs involve the interception of encrypted web traffic. The senators also asked Facebook who had access to the sensitive data collected from participants and how the company verified parental consent.
“We write concerned about reports that Facebook is collecting highly-sensitive data on teenagers, including their web browsing, phone use, communications, and locations – all to profile their behavior without adequate disclosure, consent, or oversight,” wrote the senators in their letter to Facebook.
Hawley, Blumenthal, and Markey also called attention to Facebook’s long history of using personal data for potentially anti-competitive purposes, such as acquiring or copying emerging competitors using data from its controversial Onavo Protect VPN app. TechCrunch reported that Facebook had bypassed Apple’s review processes and circumvented attempts by Apple to protect its consumers, using the Onavo Protect app that Apple had already banned from the App Store for privacy reasons.
“These reports fit with longstanding concerns that Facebook has used its products to deeply intrude into personal privacy. Additionally, the scope of the research and the use of the Onavo Protect app raises questions about Facebook’s use of personal data to engage in potentially anti-competitive behavior,” wrote the senators in their letter to Facebook.
In separate letters to Apple and Google, the senators asked the companies for information on what they were doing to protect their customers from intrusive monitoring practices. Hawley, Blumenthal, and Markey also requested information how many devices Facebook monitored and whether Facebook had circumvented Apple and Google’s app review processes in other cases.
“Platforms must be vigilant in light of threats to teen privacy posed by programs like Project Atlas. Facebook is not alone in engaging in commercial monitoring of teens,” wrote the Senators in their letters to Apple and Google.
The senators also asked Google about reports that the company has conducted a monitoring program similar to Facebook’s Project Atlas, and demanded to know why Google has yet to remove Facebook’s Onavo Protect app from its Play Store.
The signed PDF letters are available here: Facebook, Apple and Google.