Facebook's 'Deeply Invasive' Research App Draws Questions From Senate

A recent report that Facebook collected a trove of data from teens as young as 13 is sparking a new round of bipartisan scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

“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,” Sens. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) wrote Thursday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “These reports fit with longstanding concerns that Facebook has used its products to deeply intrude into personal privacy.”

The lawmakers also posed questions to Google and Apple about their distribution policies at the Play Store and App Store, including whether their terms of service prohibition the collection of browsing histories, communications or other app usage data.

Markey, Blumenthal and Hawley additionally asked all three companies whether they would support new privacy laws for teens, given the “recent invasions of children's and teen's privacy.”

The letters come one week after TechCrunch reported that Facebook, through its Project Atlas program, was paying people between the ages of 13 and 35 to download the Facebook Research VPN, which allowed Facebook access to all mobile and web data.

Facebook reportedly distributed the app through Apple's “enterprise” program, which was intended to allow companies to distribute apps within their own organizations.

Apple blocked Facebook from distributing the app soon after that report came out, and rescinded Facebook's ability to distribute apps through the enterprise program.

The lawmakers write that they are concerned by the “deeply invasive” app, which gave the company “limitless access to monitor normally secure web traffic, even allowing Facebook to watch an individual log into their bank account or exchange pictures with their family.”

They add that Facebook's disclosures failed to provide “a meaningful explanation about how that sensitive data is used, how long it is kept, or who within Facebook has access to it.”

The senators also raised questions about Google's Screenwise Meter, a data-collecting app that was also distributed through Apple's enterprise program, in violation of Apple's policies.

“While Google has since removed the app, questions remain about why it had gone outside Apple's review process to run the monitoring program,” they say in a letter to Google's Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president for platforms.

“Platforms must be vigilant in light of threats to teen privacy posed by programs like Project Atlas,” the lawmakers write to Lockheimer and Apple CEO Tim Cook. “Platforms must maintain and consistently enforce clear policies on the monitoring of teens and what constitutes meaningful parental consent, no matter who is providing an app.”

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