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Big Tech Got Special Access To Facebook User Data

Over the course of years, Facebook reportedly enabled some of the world’s biggest tech companies to access the personal data of users — which amounted to the social media giant exempting some businesses from the privacy rules its customers thought they were protected under.

According to a report in The New York Times citing hundreds of pages of internal Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times and interviews, the deals with the tech companies were aimed at helping everyone involved. Facebook got huge growth and an increase in revenue from advertising while the tech companies got access to data that helped them create products that were more attractive to would-be users.

Based on the records, The New York Times reported Facebook let Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of all Facebook users’ friends without getting consent and enabled Netflix and Spotify to read private messages of Facebook users. For Amazon, Facebook let it access users’ names and contact information via their friends and enabled Yahoo to view streams of friends’ post as late as this summer. This comes even as Facebook has claimed it stopped providing access to data years ago.  The new revelations noted, The New York Times, could put Facebook in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission. In 2011 it signed a consent agreement with the FTC that prevents it from sharing data on users without their clear consent.

According to the report, Facebook let Spotify, Netflix and Royal Bank of Canada read, write and delete private messages of users and to see everyone who participated on a thread. That amount of data went beyond what was needed for integration with Facebook. Spotify could see the messages of more than 70 million users each month, noted the report. Meanwhile, Apple has access to the contact numbers and calendar entries of individuals who changed their account to disable sharing. Apple told the paper it wasn’t aware it was given special access and that any shared data stayed on the devices and was only available to users.

While most of the special privileges went to big tech companies, the paper noted that Facebook also extended them to online retailers, entertainment website operators, automakers and media firms. Records show the applications of the companies that requested access to data on hundreds of millions of people each month. The deals, with some dating back to 2010, were active last year — with some still in effect in 2018. Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy, told the NYT that the partnerships didn’t violate the privacy of users or the agreement with the FTC. “We know we’ve got work to do to regain people’s trust,”  Satterfield said in the NYT report. “Protecting people’s information requires stronger teams, better technology and clearer policies, and that’s where we’ve been focused for most of 2018.” The executive, noted Facebook, is currently ending a lot of those partnerships. Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the social media giant said it hasn’t discovered evidence that partners abused the arrangement.

That defense on the part of Facebook isn’t sitting right with data privacy experts, who expressed skepticism that Facebook didn’t run afoul of the FTC agreement. “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,” said Ashkan Soltani, former chief technologist at the FTC, said in the report.

 

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