Facebook Was Giving User Data to Other Tech Giants Under the Table, According to NYT

By Bill Toulas / December 19, 2018

According to a recently published report by the New York Times, Facebook has kept an open channel of data sharing with other tech giants who acted as their corporate partners. NYT has analyzed a portion of disclosed multi-page documents, and the interviews with more than 50 former Facebook employees. The overall picture is that Facebook has been providing about 150 selected partners with access to the personal information of its 2.2 billion users. The documents contain details about deals from 2010 until today, so this process was going on even after Mark Zuckerberg assured lawmakers that stricter data protection rules have been implemented on the world’s most popular social media platform.

The majority of these partnerships come from the tech world, with Microsoft and Amazon being two of the most prominent examples, while other categories include online retailers, entertainment companies, media groups, and even automakers. Here are a couple of more specific examples of this activity:

All of this (and much more) data sharing was going on without the users knowing about it unless noticing specific adjustments in the platforms’ ad targeting behavior. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal breaching the user’s trust in Facebook, the platform took an effort to shift the public opinion by promising far better and more transparent user data privacy policies, but it seems that this didn’t affect the 'high-rolling' partnerships at all.

Facebook’s Director of Privacy, Steve Satterfield, has stated that none of these partnerships really violated the F.T.C. agreement on user privacy, as the platform considered these companies as an extension of its own services. This means that legally, the data sharing does not require the users’ consent, and the only thing that is needed is Facebook to conduct audits in order to ensure that its partners are using the personal information responsibly and only for the agreed purposes. Of course, few of the partners who agreed to comment on this topic claimed that they did not use the user data for ad targeting and that Facebook was monitoring their data management closely.

Former F.T.C. officials, however, have said that Facebook was interpreting a provision in the consent order that was intended to allow them to operate within a normal context too broadly. F.T.C. would not accept Satterfield’s claims as valid, since data sharing on other platforms cannot be considered an extension of the social media platform, by any means, even when putting the argument of functionality extension forward.

The documents that brought up the details of these agreements to the public come at a critical time for Facebook, as lawmakers and regulators all around the world are looking to bash the social media platform for its repeated violations and the blatant user data sharing with others. Investigations in Europe and the US by the Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are underway, and things are not looking good for Zuckerberg at all. The stock price of Facebook has been falling since the recent summer, users launched a #DeleteFacebook movement that experiences continuous growth, and a group of shareholders has called the creator of Facebook to step aside from the CEO position. If effective privacy safeguards are not imposed soon, Facebook will continue its steady decline, possibly facing a surge of legal problems to push it to the edge even quicker.

User data is such a precious resource today, that even after such revelations and legal actions against Facebook, the platform just couldn’t abstain from taking full advantage of having the world’s largest data sources in their hands (together with Google). Facebook could not participate in the process of selling their user data directly, so they did the next best thing, which was to give access to this data to other companies so that they own platform gets bigger and away from any competitive threat.

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