Another day and another set of startling revelations about Facebook's lax attitude towards user privacy. The social giant reportedly gave major tech companies more access than advertised to the personal user data. According to a report, the company effectively exempted the tech giants like Yahoo, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix and Spotify from privacy restrictions that are normally in place for third-party services. The development comes just days after the Menlo Park-based company announced that a software bug provided third-party apps broader access to user photos than they should ideally have had. The apps could, in theory, even see partially updated user photos that were never shared on Facebook.
The New York Times (NYT), which had obtained internal Facebook documents and interviewed over 50 people, reports that the special arrangements between Facebook and major tech companies have been in place for years, allowing all to benefits at the expanse of user privacy. Thanks to these arrangements, the services like Microsoft's Bing could see the names of the friends of virtually all Facebook users without consent, Netflix could read users' private messages, and Amazon had access to the contact information of users through their friends.
In a statement to Gadgets 360, Netflix defended its role, saying "Over the years we have tried various ways to make Netflix more social. One example of this was a feature we launched in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix. It was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015. At no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook, or ask for the ability to do so."
The NYT report adds that Facebook had these special arrangements with as many as 150 firms, ranging from tech companies, media organisations, retailers, and entertainment sites. The first of such deals were struck back in 2010 and all of these continued to be active as recently as 2017. The partnerships were considered so important by the company that decisions about forming them were vetted on levels as high as Mark Zuckerberg himself and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
The scope of intrusion
Personal data is the biggest commodity of the modern era and thanks to its massive user base (2.2 billion active users), Facebook had an unprecedented collection of it, rivalled only by search giant Google. NYT writes that Facebook realised the importance of the user data very early in its life and captalised on the same using the special access deals as an engine for growth. Here is a quick look at some specific examples of what kind of data these deals entailed Facebook's partners: Spotify, Netflix and Royal Bank of Canada could read, write, and delete users' private messages Yahoo could view real-time feeds of friends' posts The Times had access to users' friend lists Bing, Pandora, and Rotten Tomatoes access to friends' information
What does Facebook say?
Facebook told the New York Times that it has not found any evidence of abuse from the partners but did acknowledge that some of the partners had access to the user data long after they discontinued the features that required such data.
“Facebook's partners don't get to ignore people's privacy settings, and it's wrong to suggest that they do. Over the years, we've partnered with other companies so people can use Facebook on devices and platforms that we don't support ourselves. Unlike a game, streaming music service, or other third-party app, which offer experiences that are independent of Facebook, these partners can only offer specific Facebook features and are unable to use information for independent purposes,” Steve Satterfield, Director of Privacy and Public Policy at Facebook said in a statement to Axios.
“We know we've got work to do to regain people's trust. Protecting people's information requires stronger teams, better technology, and clearer policies, and that's where we've been focused for most of 2018. Partnerships are one area of focus and, as we've said, we're winding down the integration partnerships that were built to help people access Facebook,” Satterfield added.
Facebook's year of scandals
The company has been reeling from a series of privacy scandals and other controversies that began with the Cambridge Analytica debacle. Facebook has since been accused of giving a platform to conspiracy theorists and helping enable genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar. The company also revealed at least two data breaches, including the recent photo bug.
With one after another scandal coming to light, Facebook has come under increased scrutiny from lawmakers in US, Europe and other countries.