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Sen. Josh Hawley calls out Facebook over ‘encrypted’ messaging plans

‘I am frankly shocked by Facebook’s response’

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a blog post in which he envisioned a more private version of the platform. Now, that vision is drawing unexpected scrutiny from the US Senate.

In a letter earlier this month, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) posed questions to Facebook about whether it will collect metadata from these privatized and encrypted messages to track users or target ads, a potential threat to Facebook’s attempted pivot. Now, Facebook has responded to those questions, although the answers reveal little about the companies plans for the future.

In his letter, Hawley asked Facebook if it would collect data from the new private messaging system proposed earlier this year. The company responded to the inquiries, suggesting that the collection and use of this data to target ads or inform changes in the company was not ruled out. Facebook said it would begin to focus on smaller groups as well, and Hawley voiced concern over whether those communications would become more private, too.

Zuckerberg mentioned in his privacy announcement that the company was looking into building a secure payment system. Hawley asked Facebook if it would use data collected from payments to serve users ads. In its response letter, Facebook said, “Information about transactions can be used for personalization on the Facebook platform in accordance with Facebook’s data policy.”

“There are still many open questions about what metadata we will retain,” Facebook’s letter read. Facebook also suggested that this collection of metadata helps make the platform a safer place by reducing spam and enabling employees to better cooperate with law enforcement.

Zuckerberg’s decision to change the direction of the company was announced amid growing criticism over the platform’s collection and treatment of user data. Tech critics and lawmakers alike have questioned whether this pivot was made out of genuine concern or as a way to blunt the mounting criticism.

Even as a freshman senator, Hawley has branded himself as a staunch advocate for consumer privacy online. Earlier this year, he teamed up with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to extend greater privacy protections to minors by amending the Children Online Privacy Protection Act.

“If you share a link in encrypted messenger with a friend who clicks it, Facebook reserves the right to use cookies to figure out what that link was and what you two might have been discussing in your encrypted chat,” Hawley said in a statement. “If you send a roommate your rent money in encrypted messenger, Facebook reserves the right to use the payment metadata to figure out you might live together. And they call this ‘encrypted’ private messaging.”

“My advice to consumers is simple,” Hawley continued. “When Facebook tells you its messaging services are private, you can’t trust them. I’d love to know what Brian Acton and Jan Koum [WhatsApp co-founders] are thinking as they read this response.”

It’s not entirely clear when Facebook plans to formally pivot to this new privacy-focused vision for the platform, but Zuckerberg has previously said that it could take a number of years before it’s fully in place.

“I am frankly shocked by Facebook’s response,” Hawley said on Wednesday in response to the social media network’s answers. “I thought they’d swear off the creepier possibilities I raised. But instead, they doubled down.”