Facebook details location tracking after pressure from senators

Facebook details location tracking after pressure from senators
© Getty

Facebook this week told senators that it continues to track the location of its users even after they've said they don't want the social media giant to know where they are — and it makes money off of that information. 

Facebook's letter to Sens. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Democrats scramble to rein in Trump's Iran war powers Administration officials defend Trump claims, Soleimani intelligence as senators push back on briefing MORE (D-Del.) and Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Biden calls for revoking key online legal protection House poised to hand impeachment articles to Senate MORE (R-Mo.), obtained by The Hill on Tuesday, comes in response to the senators' questions about the company's location-tracking policies. The senators had asked Facebook to explain how it learns the location of its users and whether it continues to track that information even when users opt out.

The company's deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman, wrote that Facebook is able to deduce location based on a user's IP address and how they behave on the platform, even if they've turned off "location services" on their phone. For instance, the platform can figure out where a user is located when they consistently say they are attending events in a certain city. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"When location services is off, Facebook may still understand people’s locations using information people share through their activities on Facebook or through IP addresses and other network connections they use," Sherman wrote. 

And, he added, "as part of using Facebook, people may provide Facebook with specific information about their location ... They may check-in at a restaurant or a store, or apply a location tag to a photo, or their friend might tag them in a check-in post." 

Sherman also noted that Facebook always serves ads based on location information, even after a user has chosen to turn off location-tracking from their phone.

"By necessity, virtually all ads on Facebook are targeted based on location, though most commonly ads are targeted to people within a particular city or some larger region," Sherman wrote.

Coons and Hawley on Tuesday both criticized Facebook's response to their letter, panning the company for continuing to make money off of personal information that users have explicitly said they don't want Facebook to have.

ADVERTISEMENT

Coons, who helps head the Senate Judiciary Committee's tech task force, called Facebook's efforts "insufficient and even misleading." 

"Facebook claims that users are in control of their own privacy, but in reality, users aren’t even given an option to stop Facebook from collecting and monetizing their location information," Coons said. "The American people deserve to know how tech companies use their data, and I will continue working to find solutions to protect Americans’ sensitive information." 

Hawley, who regularly lambasts Facebook and recently sat down with Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief 'fully expects' Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech 'monopoly power' Michigan governor urges Zuckerberg to enforce community guidelines after hate speech, threats surface Smaller companies testify against Big Tech's 'monopoly power' MORE for a testy hourlong meeting, tweeted, "There is no opting out. No control over your personal information. That’s Big Tech. And that’s why Congress needs to take action."