The top Republicans on the House and Senate education committees are demanding answers from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona after the Department of Education admitted it was providing financial aid applicants' user data to Facebook.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) blasted Cardona in a letter on Tuesday for the agency's failure to brief lawmakers after a report in the blog the Markup revealed that a "meta pixel" code in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid was directly providing user data to Facebook, regardless of whether or not the applicant had an account.
"As your agency failed to provide a briefing to date on the extent of the data collected, we do not know the extent of the information shared, including whether income and social security numbers were shared," the lawmakers wrote. "This data collection and sharing happened without the consent or knowledge of individuals or their parents, and Facebook received the data regardless of whether an individual had a Facebook account."
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Following the Markup's inquiries, the Department of Education said it had turned off the data collection, which the department said was a result of a "March 22 advertising campaign" by the Office of Federal Student Aid that "inadvertently caused some StudentAid.gov user information that falls outside of FSA’s normal collection efforts, such as a user’s first and last name, to be tracked."
But the outlet reported that its data indicated the collection, which included email addresses and phone numbers, began as far back as January, something that Burr and Foxx made note of in their letter.
"The article notes that the existence of the Pixel code predates that advertising campaign, thereby leading us to believe your staff is either obfuscating the truth or completely disregarding its responsibility to protect personal information," Foxx and Burr wrote.
"This was either an intentional use of the code or it was embedded without the Department’s consent," they continued. "In either circumstance, the Department has failed to protect the privacy of individuals seeking to further their education. The FAFSA is used to distribute more than $100 billion in aid to help students attain a postsecondary education. For many of these students, federal financial assistance is the only path to a postsecondary education, and the FAFSA is the only way to apply for this aid. Using this process to enable predatory data collection by Facebook is completely inappropriate."
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The lawmakers demanded Cardona further clarify when the collection actually took place, what data was collected, and whether or not the agency had entered into an agreement with Facebook to provide the company the data.
"To gain back the trust from students and parents, the Department must be as transparent as possible," the lawmakers wrote.