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Missouri attorney general opens probe into Facebook data collection

Josh Hawley has been one of the more aggressive attorney generals in going after tech giants, sending an investigative subpoena to Google last fall.
Image: Josh Hawley
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley makes his acceptance speech on November 9, 2016, in Springfield, Missouri. (Jr/TNS via Getty Images)John Sleezer / TNS via Getty Images

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri's top prosecutor on Monday announced an investigation into Facebook, calling for a review of the social media giant's handling of user data after the revelation that a political consulting firm had surreptitiously obtained the information of millions of people.

Attorney General Josh Hawley said he had issued a "civil investigative demand" — similar to a subpoena — to Facebook to probe whether the company had violated the state's laws on merchandising practices. The move comes after the Federal Trade Commission announced last week it would launch a nonpublic investigation into Facebook's privacy practices following the scandal connected to Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm that had worked with President Donald Trump's campaign.

Hawley adds to Facebook's growing legal challenges, which include a joint investigation by New York and Massachusetts.

"While we built our personal profiles to share with our friends and family, Facebook built a profile on us — a profile that they have reportedly shared with third parties who want to make a profit, earn a vote or somehow persuade us to to make a decision that may be in their best interests but not necessarily in ours," Hawley told reporters.

Hawley has been one of the more aggressive state attorneys general to tangle with tech giants. Last fall, he sent an investigative subpoena to Google to determine whether the internet company had broken any consumer-protection or antitrust laws. He also opened investigations into Uber and Equifax after becoming attorney general in January 2017.

Google and Facebook have been two of the country's most trusted companies, Hawley said Monday, but "with that trust comes great responsibility, including the responsibility to follow the law."

Facebook has faced mounting pressure to take action after a whistleblower that previously worked for Cambridge Analytica came forward last month claiming that the British-based firm had harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook profiles without users' knowledge. Trump's presidential campaign paid the firm $5 million in September 2016 to help target voters.

Facebook did not immediately comment Monday regarding Hawley's investigation, but has until May 29 to respond.

Amid the fallout, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced new initiatives last month to prevent companies from acquiring personal data and new tools to help users see more clearly which apps are accessing their information on the platform.

Hawley said he also wants to know whether Facebook's terms and conditions for use of the site adequately explained how data would be used and if the company properly responded when told of the misuse of private data by third parties.

The state's tech-related investigations come as Hawley, a Republican, announced that he would run for U.S. Senate in Missouri against the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill. Democrats in the state have tried to link Hawley with embattled Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who was indicted in February on an invasion of privacy charge related to an affair he had in 2015 before taking office.

Hawley received Trump's endorsement last year, and told The Associated Press that he hopes Trump will come back to Missouri to campaign for him.

Jonathan Allen reported from Jefferson City, and Erik Ortiz from New York.