Student Defense, Accountable Tech Worry FAFSA Student Data Sent to Facebook Could be Used for Predatory, Discriminatory Advertising
Advocates call for investigation into privacy breach citing for-profit industry & Facebook’s troubling history with employing, perpetuating discriminatory advertising
Student Defense and Accountable Tech today called for a full investigation into reports that the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) released personally identifiable information from an unknown number of federal aid applicants to Facebook. Last month, The Markup reported that a string of computer programming code known as the Facebook Pixel was collecting student data and sending the information to Facebook. In response, Student Defense and Accountable Tech sent a letter to the House Oversight committee requesting a full investigation. The groups also filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department as part of their own investigation into the privacy breach.
The letter asks for the Committee to evaluate how many applicants were impacted, determine whether FSA has taken any corrective actions or launched its own investigation, and probe whether or how advertisers on Facebook — specifically for-profit colleges — might use this information to target students through misleading advertising campaigns.
Meta allows advertisers to parse and upload their own PII to compare against Facebook user data to assist in ad targeting. This is especially troubling as it relates to targeted advertising efforts that may be launched by predatory colleges with a history of employing deceptive and unscrupulous marketing practices to lure students to enroll.
Facebook has a controversial history regarding user data privacy and their lenient and obscure targeted advertising policies are not new to government scrutiny. As recently as May 12, media reports indicate Facebook continues to allow advertisers to reach — or exclude — hyper-targeted demographic groups by identifiers such as race, religion, and sexual orientation.
The lax accountability and oversight surrounding these policies has also enabled predatory advertisers to use Americans’ personal information for discriminatory advertising campaigns that may violate civil rights and consumer protections laws. For example, a 2019 report showed that Facebook’s algorithm was preventing women from seeing some job advertisements. The company has also faced intense scrutiny for allowing advertisers to discriminate against protected classes when advertising for housing and credit.
The for-profit college industry has a similarly controversial history with discriminatory and perdatory advertising practices. As recently as October 2021, the Federal Trade Commission has warned dozens of for-profit colleges and universities about predatory advertising practices, including false and misleading claims aimed at ensnaring students in high-cost, low-quality programs. In many cases, students end up shouldering the burden of unnecessary debt while higher ed profiteers line their pockets.
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sued Facebook for enabling housing discrimination through targeted advertising. The for-profit college industry, meanwhile, has been accused of employing deceptive advertising campaigns to lure students into enrollment with inflated job placement rates and false program requirements. Student Defense recently filed a lawsuit against Walden University, alleging the school unfairly targeted Black and women students to enroll in the school’s Doctorate in Business Administration program. In October 2021, the Federal Trade Commission also warned 70 for-profit colleges about false and misleading claims found among various advertising campaigns.
“Students shouldn’t have to worry about data privacy when accessing government resources online,” said Student Defense President Aaron Ament. “We’re concerned that predatory companies, including troubled for-profit colleges that have targeted students of color, could be using students’ data against them — while advertising on Facebook. The public deserves to know the extent of this breach and the assurance that government agencies are taking steps to protect their data and prevent this from happening again.”
“It’s extremely concerning that Facebook has extracted sensitive data from federal financial aid applications that for-profit colleges and others could potentially use to micro-target vulnerable students with predatory ad campaigns,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech. “Facebook’s business model relies on endlessly tracking and profiling people to target them with hyper-personalized ads. But time and time again, we’ve seen that they’re unable or unwilling to prevent this surveillance advertising machinery from becoming a vehicle for systemic discrimination. We need answers.”
A full copy of the House Oversight Committee letter can be found on the Student Defense website.