Warner presses Facebook on efforts to monitor user activity

facebookU.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, raising concerns about reports indicating efforts by the company to monitor users’ device activity without fully disclosing Facebook’s involvement or the purposes of the data-gathering.

On Jan. 29, the online outlet TechCrunch reported that under the auspices of partnerships with beta-testing firms, Facebook secretly paid users aged 13 to 35 to sell their privacy by installing  a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in users’ phone and web activity. Earlier reporting from the Wall Street Journal had previously revealed the existence of a similar surveillance app that Facebook utilized to track user activity and neutralize potential competitors.

“In both the case of Onavo and the Facebook Research project, I have concerns that users were not appropriately informed about the extent of Facebook’s data-gathering and the commercial purposes of this data collection. Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me,” Warner told Zuckerberg.

He added, “In large part for this reason, I am working on legislation to require individualized, informed consent in all instances of behavioral and market research conducted by large platforms on users. Fair, robust competition serves as an impetus for innovation, product differentiation, and wider consumer choice.”

Sen. Warner posed a series of questions for Zuckerberg regarding the company’s decision to track user data, including:

  • Do you think any user reasonably understood that they were giving Facebook root device access through the enterprise certificate? What specific steps did you take to ensure that users were properly informed of this access? 
  • Do you think any user reasonably understood that Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes, including to track competitors?
  • Will you release all participants from the confidentiality agreements Facebook made them sign?
  • As you know, I have begun working on legislation that would require large platforms such as Facebook to provide users, on a continual basis, with an estimate of the overall value of their data to the service provider. In this instance, Facebook seems to have developed valuations for at least some uses of the data that was collected (such as market research). This further emphasizes the need for users to understand fully what data is collected by Facebook, the full range of ways in which it is used, and how much it is worth to the company. Will you commit to supporting this legislation and exploring methods for valuing user data holistically?
  • Will you commit to supporting legislation requiring individualized, informed consent in all instances of behavioral and market research conducted by large platforms on users?

Last year, Sen. Warner called on the social media companies to work with Congress and provide feedback on ideas he put forward in a white paper discussing potential policy solutions to challenges surrounding social media, privacy, and data security. He plans to introduce legislation in early 2019.

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