Lawmakers Want Facebook to Stop Spying on Minors

“Wiretapping teens is not research.”

Facebook was collecting the data of teenagers through an application that avoided Apple review.Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

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The day after Tech Crunch revealed that Facebook paid minors to monitor their phone usage, lawmakers are demanding that Facebook stop collecting data on teenagers.

“It is inherently manipulative to offer teens money in exchange for their personal information when younger users don’t have a clear understanding how much data they’re handing over and how sensitive it is,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in a statement. “I strongly urge Facebook to immediately cease its recruitment of teens for its Research Program and explicitly prohibit minors from participating.”

Mark Zuckerberg’s empty promises are not enough,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said a statement to Mother Jones, demanding the Federal Trade Commission “step up to the plate” and begin an investigation. Blumenthal’s statement said he will “be writing to Apple and Google on Facebook’s egregious behavior, and working in Congress to make sure that teens are protected from Big Tech’s privacy intrusions.”

According to Tuesday’s Tech Crunch report, Facebook had been paying users as young as 13 to install an app from either the Apple App Store or Google Play allowing the company complete access to their phone. In June, Apple informed Facebook that the app violated its data collection policies. Facebook removed the app at the time from the App Store, only to continue the project through a new app that bypassed Apple review due to a distribution loophole that is designed for companies to distribute apps internally to its employees. Following the Tech Crunch report, Apple shut down the new version of the app. As of publication, the app is still available on Android.

While Facebook’s actions are not in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which was passed by Congress in 1998 to protect the privacy of children under 13, Markey says that the law should be updated to include the privacy of teenagers. 

In a statement to Tech Crunch, Facebook claimed that “less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.” Participants received a payment of $20 a month after installing the app. 

The news came just a day after Markey and Blumenthal sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about an investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting that showed that Facebook willingly ignored reports of children under 13 using their parents’ credit cards to play games on the platform. The letter also reaffirmed concerns about Facebook’s messenger product, which targets children under 13. The letter asks Facebook to answer when the company and Zuckerberg personally first became aware of the credit card issue and what policy changes the company has taken to address the issue. 

“Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible,” said Blumenthal. “Facebook continues to demonstrate its eagerness to look over everyone’s shoulder and watch everything they do in order to make money.”

Update (1/31/19): A Facebook spokesperson emailed comment after this story was published: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

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THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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