Facebook Let Smartphone Companies Access Your Private Data
In April, the world learned that Cambridge Analytica, the Trump-allied data firm, gained access to data from 50 million Facebook users without their permission. It did so, as Kurt Wagner explains in Recode, through a targeted advertising program that sells advertisers “access to your News Feed, and uses that data to show you specific ads it thinks you’re likely to enjoy or click on.” Such data-sharing, The New York Times reports, wasn’t limited to advertisers and Cambridge Analytica, but extended to the makers of smartphones, which many people use to access Facebook.
The Times reports that lawmakers learned that “Facebook failed to closely monitor device makers after granting them access to the personal data of hundreds of millions of people, according to a previously unreported disclosure to Congress last month.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., provided the Times with a letter from Facebook explaining the nature of the deals.
By 2013, Facebook developed partnerships with seven companies, including BlackBerry, to provide what it called “ ‘the Facebook experience’, custom-built software, typically, that gave those manufacturers’ customers access to Facebook on their phones.” The partnerships fell under a Federal Trade Commission consent decree that required a government-appointed monitor to provide oversight.
But, as the Times article notes, Facebook handpicked its own privacy monitor, in this case, a team from PwC (the brand name for PricewaterhouseCoopers). When the team conducted its first assessment in 2013, it examined Facebook’s partnerships with Microsoft and Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerry. For both companies, “PricewaterhouseCoopers found only ‘limited evidence’ that Facebook had monitored or checked its partners’ compliance with its data use policies. That finding was redacted from a public version of PricewaterhouseCoopers’s report released by the F.T.C. in June.”
The letter from Facebook was written in response to Wyden’s questions during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in September. That hearing, the Times reports, “was held just weeks after The Times reported that Facebook had struck data-sharing deals with dozens of phone and tablet manufacturers, including Microsoft, BlackBerry and Amazon.”
As Wyden told the Times, “Facebook claimed that its data-sharing partnerships with smartphone manufacturers were on the up and up. … But Facebook’s own, handpicked auditors said the company wasn’t monitoring what smartphone manufacturers did with Americans’ personal information, or making sure these manufacturers were following Facebook’s own policies.”
PwC conducted additional assessments, but Facebook largely dictated the scope and terms, a common practice. America doesn’t have general consumer privacy laws, and the FTC consent decrees, however limited, are the only regulatory tool available.
A member of Wyden’s staff told the Times that they don’t believe Facebook ever addressed the issue. Unfortunately for consumers concerned about whether phone manufacturers have access to their private data, “It remains unclear whether Facebook has ever scrutinized how its partner companies handled personal data.” Facebook spokespeople would not answer the Times’ questions about it.
Read the full article here.