Did Facebook’s Data-Sharing Deals With Mobile Device-Makers Go Too Far?

Social network and the industry respond to New York Times’ story

Facebook is under fire again, this time over agreements with mobile device makers
Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images, Facebook

Facebook reached data-sharing partnerships over the past decade with at least 60 device-makers—including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, BlackBerry and Amazon—but according to a New York Times report, those partnerships may have dug deeper into users’ personal data than previously thought.

The Times report has already drawn attention in Washington, D.C., as Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called out Facebook in a tweet, and the social network responded.

Industry reaction to the Times story was mixed.

Dan Goldstein, president and owner of full-service digital marketing agency Page 1 Solutions, said, “The steady drip, drip, drip of news about the apparent way Facebook has handled private user data continues to raise alarm bells. I suspect that we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg, and there are many more instances of this from other social media and tech companies. For instance, every mobile phone-maker is able to track every place you go and every call you make. The only question is whether that data is being analyzed and shared with malicious actors like Cambridge Analytica.”

Social Media Week founder Toby Daniels said Cambridge Analytica dominated discussion at a recent event in New York, adding, “Facebook positions itself as being on a mission to bring the world closer together—an idealistic statement that is hard to reconcile as it goes against the grain of its business model. This is the fundamental reason why users won’t fully trust that Facebook acts in the best interests of users with full transparency into how personal data is being used.”

But Eric Schiffer, chairman and CEO of digital marketing solutions provider DigitalMarketing.com and Reputation Management Consultants, believes the Times “is putting a filter on this that may not be fair to Facebook.”

Schiffer said this incident “is not the rat poison” that Cambridge Analytica was, adding, “There is clearly a history that makes consumers feel like they’re being gangsterized in various ways. This will further delay Facebook’s sprint to rebuild credibility, but it won’t put an end to it.”

According to the Times report, the device-makers were able to access data on users’ friends without those friends’ explicit consent, including information on relationship status, religion, political leanings and events.

Former Facebook executive Sandy Parakilas, who led third-party advertising and privacy compliance for the social network, told the Times these partnerships were a cause for concern as early as 2012, saying, “This was flagged internally as a privacy issue. 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.”

 

Facebook responded quickly to the Times report, with vice president of product partnerships Ime Archibong writing in a Newsroom post that the agreements were forged in the earlier days of mobile in order to enable the social network to build versions of its application that were compatible with several different operating systems and device manufacturers.

Jessica Rich, former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection and current vp of advocacy for Consumers Union, took issue with Archibong’s explanation, telling the Times, “Under Facebook’s interpretation, the exception swallows the rule. They could argue that any sharing of data with third parties is part of the Facebook experience. And this is not at all how the public interpreted [Facebook’s] 2014 announcement that they would limit third-party app access to friend data.”

Archibong sought to quell the inevitable comparisons to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, writing, “This is very different from the public APIs [application-programming interfaces] used by third-party developers, like Aleksandr Kogan. These third-party developers were not allowed to offer versions of Facebook to people and, instead, used the Facebook information people shared with them to build completely new experiences.”

According to Archibong, the growth of the iOS and Android operating systems left fewer people reliant on the APIs Facebook created with the device-makers. Facebook announced in April that access to those APIs was winding down, with 22 of the partnerships having already been terminated.

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