Facebook forged an agreement with at least 60 device makers including Apple and Samsung to provide access to large swathes of user data without explicit consent, in a move that may have violated a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent decree.
According to a lengthy report in The New York Times, the social network made the deals so that device makers could use APIs to include Facebook messaging functions, “Like” buttons, address books, and other features without requiring users to install a separate app. The deals were reportedly made over the last decade, starting before Facebook apps were widely available on smartphones.
Most of the partnerships remain in effect, though Facebook began winding them down in April. However, in a recent test conducted by NYT on a 2013 Blackberry device, using a reporter’s Facebook account, an app called “The Hub” was still able to harvest details on 558 of his friends, including their political and religious views. Not only that, the app was also able to access “identifying information” on 294,258 friends of his friends.
Facebook has hit back against the claims in the report. In a blog post titled “Why We Disagree with The New York Times”, the company said it created the APIs for device makers so that they could provide Facebook features on operating systems before apps or app stores where available.
Given that these APIs enabled other companies to recreate the Facebook experience, we controlled them tightly from the get-go. These partners signed agreements that prevented people’s Facebook information from being used for any other purpose than to recreate Facebook-like experiences. Partners could not integrate the user’s Facebook features with their devices without the user’s permission. And our partnership and engineering teams approved the Facebook experiences these companies built. Contrary to claims by the New York Times, friends’ information, like photos, was only accessible on devices when people made a decision to share their information with those friends. We are not aware of any abuse by these companies.
Facebook came under major scrutiny in March following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data of 50 million users was misused in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since testified in front of congress in an attempt to answer questions about Facebook’s handling of user data.
The social networking giant is already facing an ongoing investigation by the FTC, which is looking into whether Facebook violated an agreement reached with the agency in 2011. The FTC investigation was launched when it found that Facebook had told users that third-party apps on the social media site wouldn’t be allowed to access their data, when in fact they were able to obtain almost all personal information about a user.