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Lawmakers are furious with Facebook: ‘wiretapping teens is not research’

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More fallout from the teen data collection project

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford And Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Testify To Senate Judiciary Committee Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Tuesday night, a TechCrunch investigation revealed that Facebook had been secretly paying teenagers to install a VPN that let the company see nearly everything they did on their phones. Today, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are lashing out at the tech giant, raising new questions about how the company might fare in future privacy legislation.

“Wiretapping teens is not research, and it should never be permissible.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said in a statement. “Instead of learning its lesson when it was caught spying on consumers using the supposedly ‘private’ Onavo VPN app, Facebook rebranded the intrusive app and circumvented Apple’s attempts to protect iPhone users.”

Blumenthal said that he would be sending letters to Apple and Google to probe them on their involvement by hosting the apps.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) tweeted, “Wait a minute. Facebook PAID teenagers to install a surveillance device on their phones without telling them it gave Facebook power to spy on them? Some kids as young as 13. Are you serious?” This is Hawley’s first year serving in the Senate, and he has already positioned himself as a strong conservative voice on tech. At his first Judiciary hearing in January, Hawley lambasted President Trump’s attorney general nominee with questions regarding his stance on regulating Silicon Valley companies.

Many lawmakers who have spoken out to condemn Facebook have already proposed their own bills seeking to protect the data of consumers. One of the only data privacy laws that has ever been enacted at the federal level was authored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). In 2000, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) put in place specific rules that platforms had to abide by when it came to collecting data from children under 13 years old. In a statement, Markey said, “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.”

This year, the commerce committees in both the House and Senate are planning more hearings on tech regulation. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) who chairs the Energy and Commerce panel said that data privacy will be a priority. Earlier today, Pallone reacted to the TechCrunch story saying, “Parents warn their children to beware of strangers handing out candy. Apparently that adage should apply to Facebook too.”

“This is one more example of why Americans need a strong, comprehensive privacy law,” Pallone continued.

The ranking member of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has been an outspoken voice on tech regulation throughout the past year. As a response to the report, Warner sent a letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him whether he believed that users actually knew how much data they were giving away by downloading the app and authorizing it access to the device.

“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,” Warner said. “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users — particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts — has been a source of frustration for me.”

Updated 1/30/19 at 5:02 p.m. ET: Removed a line that suggested that a bill sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) would remove COPPA.