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Senators raise questions over Facebook’s monitoring of phone users’ locations

After Facebook publishes a blog post with conflicting statements, two US senators ask for clarification on how the company collects location data from its users

US lawmakers say Facebook may have misled the public over its claims that they have control over the social network’s collection of data about their location from mobile phones.

Senators Christopher Coons and Josh Hawley wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on 19 November to question Facebook about its privacy practices.

The letter raises concerns that Facebook may continue to collect people’s location data, even if users have protected their data using privacy settings, and even when they are not using Facebook’s app.

Coons, a Republican senator for Missouri, and Hawley, a Democratic Senator for Delaware, made the intervention after Facebook published a blog post explaining how users could control the privacy of their location data.

Facebook used the blog to explain how phone users could choose to share their “precise” location information from their Android or Apple mobile phones with Facebook either “all the time”, “only while using the app”, “not at all”, or “just once” (only for iOS). 

However, the post went on to say that “[Facebook] may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection”.

“We are concerned that this language and practice undermines users’ actual control of their location data,” wrote the senators.

The senators also questioned whether Facebook collects location information from users who have either turned off or limited Location Services, whether Facebook can deduce location information based on a user’s internet connection, and whether Facebook shares any of this location information – collected when a user has turned off Location Services – with third parties.

Computer Weekly has previously reported on 22 times that Facebook backtracked on promises to protect personal data, which included the use of Bluetooth beacons to track users’ physical presence in shops without the use of GPS.

Leaked documents reported on by Computer Weekly also reveal how, under Facebook’s “Switcheroo” scheme, privacy was used as a cover story to conceal the company’s plan to kill popular apps.

When asked by Computer Weekly if it would like to comment on the contents of the letter, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We only receive precise location information when people choose to share it through their device’s Location Services settings.”

Facebook did not immediately respond when asked for further clarification on the definition of “precise location information” and how it differs from other location information.

Both senators have been vocal critics of Facebook, and big tech more generally. Hawley, for example, recently suggested to Zuckerberg in a private meeting that he should sell WhatsApp and Instagram to “prove that you’re serious about data”.

Coons, meanwhile, recently challenged Amazon over its data collection and retention practices, after a CNET investigation found that Alexa voice recordings were kept indefinitely.

Zuckerberg has until 12 December to respond to the letter.

Read more about Facebook

  • After a storm of controversy and criticism over the way Facebook fails to protect users’ privacy, the company’s chief says he plans to transform it into a privacy-focused platform.
  • Facebook’s challenge to a High Court ruling that raises serious concerns about data transfers between Europe and the US is more about appearance than facts, lawyers for the Irish Data Protection Commission told Dublin’s Supreme Court.
  • Facebook planned to use its Android app to track the location of its customers and to allow advertisers to send political advertising and invites to dating sites to “single” people, confidential documents show.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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