Facebook Undermines Location-Privacy Preferences, Senators Suggest

Facebook may be undermining consumers' ability to control information about their physical whereabouts, two senators say in a new letter to the company.

“Location data is among the most sensitive personal information that a user can share with a company,” Sens. Christopher Coons (D-Delaware) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) say in a letter sent Tuesday to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “If a user has decided to limit Facebook's access to his or her location, Facebook should respect these privacy choices.”

The lawmakers' letter was prompted by a September 9 blog post in which Paul McDonald, a Facebook engineer, outlined the company's policies.

McDonald wrote that users can control whether their smartphones share “precise” location data by configuring their “Location Services” settings.

But he added that the company “may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection.”

The lawmakers are now questioning Facebook's apparent practice of deducing information about users' whereabouts, even when they configure their phones to withhold the precise GPS data.

“We are concerned that this language and practice undermines users' actual control of their location data,” Coons and Hawley write.

“Given that most mobile devices are connected to the internet nearly all the time, whether through a cellular network or a Wi-Fi connection, this practice would allow Facebook to collect user location almost constantly, irrespective of the user's privacy preferences,” the lawmakers say. “Users who have selected a restrictive Location Services option could reasonably be under the misimpression that their selection limits all of Facebook's efforts to extract location information.”

The lawmakers are asking Facebook to answer a host of questions, including how frequently it collects location data when users have attempted to prevent sharing that information, and whether it targets ads based on inferences about locations.

The letter comes just days after Facebook asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the company violates users' privacy by collecting location data based on their IP addresses.

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