Facebook shared users' personal data with other tech giants, documents show

Facebook has been reeling from a series of privacy scandals, set off by revelations in March that political consulting company Cambridge Analytica, improperly used Facebook data to build tools that aided Mr Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Facebook has been reeling from a series of privacy scandals, set off by revelations in March that political consulting company Cambridge Analytica, improperly used Facebook data to build tools that aided Mr Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • For years, Facebook gave some of the world's largest technology companies more intrusive access to users' personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, internal records and interviews show.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated last year by the company's internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network's data-sharing practices.

They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The exchange was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive. Facebook users connected with friends across different devices and websites.

But Facebook also assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users - control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight.

The social network allowed Microsoft's Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users' friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users' private messages.

The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users' names and contact information through their friends, and it also let Yahoo view streams of friends' posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

The social network allowed Microsoft's Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users' friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users' private messages.

Facebook has been reeling from a series of privacy scandals, set off by revelations in March that a political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, improperly used Facebook data to build tools that aided Mr Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.

Acknowledging that it had breached users' trust, Facebook insisted that it had instituted stricter privacy protections long ago.

 
 
 

CEO Mark Zuckerberg assured lawmakers in April that people "have complete control" over everything they share on Facebook. But the documents, as well as interviews with about 50 former employees of Facebook and its corporate partners, reveal that Facebook allowed certain companies access to data despite those protections.

They also raise questions about whether Facebook ran afoul of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that barred the social network from sharing user data without explicit permission.

In an interview, Facebook's director of privacy and public policy, Mr Steve Satterfield, said none of the partnerships violated users' privacy or the FTC agreement. Contracts required the companies to abide by Facebook policies, he added.

Still, Facebook executives have acknowledged missteps during the past year. "We know we've got work to do to regain people's trust," Mr Satterfield said.

"Protecting people's information requires stronger teams, better technology and clearer policies, and that's where we've been focused for most of 2018."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'Facebook shared users' personal data with other tech giants, documents show'. Print Edition | Subscribe