Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Menlo Park, CA, United States (4E) – It appears Facebook has a pattern of not protecting the privacy of its users with the embarrassing revelation it gave Apple, Samsung, BlackBerry and other device makers detailed access to user data.
Facebook struck partnerships with at least 60 device makers some six years ago so they could offer messaging “Like” buttons and other features without the need for an app. A reporter for the New York Times, which broke the story, found that BlackBerry Hub was able to glean private data from 556 of his friends, including their religious and political leanings and events they planned to attend.
These Facebook partners could also access other information (including unique identifiers) on 294,258 friends of his friends. The finding appears to belie Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments to Congress in March when he said that “every piece of content that you share on Facebook you own. You have complete control over who sees it and how you share it.”
The issue has also caught the attention of Congress. “Sure looks like Zuckerberg lied to Congress about whether users have ‘complete control’ over who sees our data on Facebook,” tweeted Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI), who’s also a consumer privacy advocate. “This needs to be investigated and the people responsible need to be held accountable.”
The partnerships might have violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree, which Facebook denied. The report comes as Facebook is under investigation for its handling of private data after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica accessed millions of users’ private information.
Security experts and former Facebook engineers were concerned the partnerships gave companies almost unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of Facebook users without their knowledge.
“It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former FTC chief technologist.
Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook employee who led third-party ad and privacy compliance, said the program was controversial even within Facebook. “This was flagged internally as a privacy issue,” he said. “It is shocking that this practice may still continue six years later, and it appears to contradict Facebook’s testimony to Congress that all friend permissions were disabled.”
In its defense, Facebook said that the data-sharing partnerships were different from app developers’ access to Facebook users. It also said it considers device makers “extensions” of the social network.
Facebook’s reply titled, “Why We Disagree with The New York Times,” said the firm created APIs for Amazon, Apple, Blackberry, HTC, Microsoft, Samsung and other device makers so they could offer Facebook on their operating systems at a time when there were no apps or app stores. “All these partnerships were built on a common interest — the desire for people to be able to use Facebook whatever their device or operating system,” said Ime Archibong, VP of Product Partnerships.
Facebook controlled the APIs tightly, and said the partners signed agreements that prevented information from being used for anything other than to “recreate Facebook-like experience.” It also said the features couldn’t be used with permission, and that its engineering teams approved all of them.
“Contrary to claims by the New York Times, friends’ information, like photos, was only accessible on devices when people made a decision to share their information with those friends,” said Facebook. “We are not aware of any abuse by these companies.”
Facebook began closing down the program in April, but it’s still in effect for many of the partners.
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