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

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

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.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate