Facebook gave tech giants more access to users' data than it said: Report

By Steven Musil

/ CNET

Facebook gave some of the tech industry's biggest companies greater access to users' personal data than the social-networking company previously disclosed, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Special arrangements detailed in internal Facebook documents gave Microsoft's Bing search engine access to the names of all Facebook users' friends without consent and allowed Netflix and Spotify to read Facebook users' private messages, the Times reported.

Other arrangements allowed Amazon to obtain users' names and contact information through their friends and permitted Yahoo to view streams of friends' posts as recently as this summer, the Times reported, despite Facebook's statements that it had ended that type of data sharing.

Facebook has been under scrutiny since the revelation in March that consultancy Cambridge Analytica had misused Facebook user data in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Since then, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified in front of Congress and the European Parliament to answer questions about Facebook's handling of user data.

The company has also been in the hot seat for not doing enough to prevent abuse from Russian trolls that posted misinformation and divisive content on the platform. The Russian activity was part of a coordinated campaign to interfere with the U.S. presidential election by sowing discord among voters.

Facebook acknowledged in July it entered into data-sharing agreements with dozens of tech companies, admitting it continued sharing information with 61 hardware and software makers even after it said it had discontinued the practice in May 2015. The data-sharing agreements were intended to integrate the "Facebook experience" with mobile devices, something a Facebook representative at the time called a "standard industry practice."

The Times reported Tuesday that the records show Facebook had arrangements with more than 150 companies — mostly in the tech industry but also in the automotive and media industries — to provide access to the data of hundreds of millions of people each month.

The deals were all active in 2017, and some were still in effect this year, the Times reported.

Facebook denied allowing its partners to ignore people's privacy settings and said "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," Steve Satterfield, Facebook's director of privacy and public policy, said in a statement. "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."

The documents reviewed by the Times raise questions of whether Facebook's data-sharing agreements ran afoul of a consent decree issued by the Federal Trade Commission intended to monitor how Facebook tracks and shares data about its users.

The consent decree was borne out of a 2011 FTC complaint that accused Facebook of breaking its promise to keep its users' data private. Facebook had assured users that third-party applications only had access to data required for them to function. But in fact, applications had access to almost all of a user's personal information.

Under the settlement, Facebook agreed to get consent from users before sharing their data with third parties. It also required Facebook to establish a "comprehensive privacy program" and to have a third-party conduct audits every two years for the next 20 years to certify its program is effective.

Other companies mentioned in the Times' report denied using their partnership with Facebook to violate users' privacy.

Amazon said its partnership with Facebook didn't violate its own privacy policy.

"Amazon uses APIs provided by Facebook in order to enable Facebook experiences for our products," an Amazon spokesman said in a statement. "For example, giving customers the option to sync Facebook contacts on an Amazon Tablet. We use information only in accordance with our privacy policy."

Microsoft said it took steps to ensure that Facebook data wasn't used to create profiles for advertising or personalization purposes.

"Throughout our engagement with Facebook, we respected all user preferences," a Microsoft spokesman said in a statement.

Netflix said that while it tried to use Facebook to boost its usability among customers, it never read users' private messages on the social media site.

"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," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. "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."

Spotify didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

This article originally appeared on CNET

First published on December 19, 2018

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

Steven Musil

Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. Before joining CNET News in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers. E-mail Steven.

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