Facebook In Fresh Controversy Over ‘unfair’ Application Of Privacy Rules
For years, it appears Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed. This effectively exempted those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews conducted by The New York Times.
The newspaper reached its conclusion after gleaning hundreds of pages of Facebook documents generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships.
The records also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.
NY Times also reports that although the exchange was intended to benefit everyone, a development which had enabled Facebook to grow, get more users and increase advertising revenues, it however allowed its partner companies acquire features to make their products more attractive.
Facebook users connect with friends across different devices and websites. But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.
The records showed that Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages.
The records further revealed that facebook permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends.
It reportedly let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.
The documents, as well as interviews with about 50 former employees of Facebook and its corporate partners, reveal that Facebook allowed certain companies access to data despite those protections.
This also raises questions about whether Facebook ran afoul of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that barred the social network from sharing user data without explicit permission.
The records also showed that their applications sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month. The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017. Some were still in effect this year.
In an interview, Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy, said none of the partnerships violated users’ privacy or the F.T.C. agreement.
The contracts, he said, required the companies to abide by Facebook policies.
“We know we’ve got work to do to regain people’s trust,” Mr Satterfield said, while acknowledging missteps of the company over the past year. “Protecting people’s information requires stronger teams, better technology and clearer policies, and that’s where we’ve been focused for most of 2018.”
He said that the partnerships were “one area of focus” and that Facebook was in the process of winding many of them down.
With most of the partnerships, Mr Satterfield said, the F.T.C. agreement did not require the social network to secure users’ consent before sharing data because Facebook considered the partners extensions of itself — service providers that allowed users to interact with their Facebook friends.
The partners were ‘prohibited’ from using the personal information for other purposes, he said. “Facebook’s partners don’t get to ignore people’s privacy settings.”
Data privacy experts disputed Facebook’s assertion that most partnerships were exempted from the regulatory requirements. They expressed scepticism that businesses as varied as device makers, retailers and search companies would be viewed alike by the agency.
“The only common theme is that they are partnerships that would benefit the company in terms of development or growth into an area that they otherwise could not get access to,” Ashkan Soltani, former chief technologist at the F.T.C said.
Mr Soltani and three former employees of the F.T.C.’s consumer protection division, which brought the case that led to the consent decree, said in interviews that its data-sharing deals had probably violated the agreement.
“This is just giving third parties permission to harvest data without you being informed of it or giving consent to it,” David Vladeck, who formerly ran the F.T.C.’s consumer protection bureau said. “I don’t understand how this unconsented-to data harvesting can at all be justified under the consent decree.”
Facebook has battled one crisis after another in recent years. The company’s critics, including former advisers and employees, have singled out the data-sharing as a cause for concern.
“I don’t believe it is legitimate to enter into data-sharing partnerships where there is not prior informed consent from the user,” Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook said. “No one should trust Facebook until they change their business model.”
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