Senators press Facebook over user location tracking policies

Senators press Facebook over user location tracking policies
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan pair of senators are pressing Facebook over its location tracking policies, questioning whether the social media giant continues to track users even when they've said they don't want Facebook to do so.

Sens. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocrats rally in support of bill to repeal Trump travel ban This week: Senate barrels toward showdown on impeachment witnesses GOP-Biden feud looms over impeachment trial MORE (D-Del.) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyOvernight Health Care: Trump becomes first sitting president to attend March for Life | Officials confirm second US case of coronavirus | Trump officials threaten California funding over abortion law Commerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  Top health officials brief senators on coronavirus as infections spread MORE (R-Mo.) on Tuesday sent a letter addressed to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — NFL social media accounts hacked | Dem questions border chief over controversial Facebook group | Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views on misinformation Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — UN calls for probe into alleged Saudi hack of Bezos | Experts see effort to 'silence' Washington Post | Bezos tweets tribute to Khashoggi MORE raising concern that Facebook ignores the wishes of users who don't want their exact location to be tracked. The letter comes on the heels of a Facebook blog post in which the company pledged it would stop tracking users' location data when they choose that option on the latest Apple and Google software updates. 

But the senators said Facebook's blog post leaves open the possibility that it will continue to record and use location information, even when users have opted out on Apple's iOS or Google's Android software.

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"If a user has decided to limit Facebook’s access to his or her location, Facebook should respect these privacy choices," Coons and Hawley wrote in the letter. "The language in the blog post, however, indicates that Facebook may continue to collect location data despite user preferences, even if the user is not engaging with the app, and Facebook is simply deducing the user’s location from information about his or her internet connection." 

Android 10 and iOS 13, the latest software updates for the Android and iPhone, offer users more control over which apps track their location data. Facebook pledged to listen to those preferences — but noted in the post that it "may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection."

"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 data almost constantly, irrespective of the user’s privacy preferences," Coons and Hawley, who both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote.

Coons is the co-leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee's tech task force, a group mainly aimed at educating senators and their staff about the latest issues around privacy and data security. And Hawley is one of the most outspoken tech critics in the Republican Party. 

The senators posed a series of questions, including whether Facebook continues to track location data regardless of users' stated preferences, how much the company gleans from a user's internet connection, whether Facebook uses location information to microtarget advertisements and more. 

They are asking for a response by Dec. 12.