Facebook responds to claims that it shared users' private messages

Konstantinos Papamiltiadis

Konstantinos Papamiltiadis

Microsoft's Bing could also view almost all users' friends, Amazon could glean contact information from them, and Yahoo had access to their posting streams.

These companies are not the only ones with broad access to user data. In addition to Sandberg's testimony this fall, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg testified at House and Senate hearings earlier this year. The Russian activity was part of a coordinated campaign to interfere with the USA presidential election by sowing discord among voters. The partners were prohibited from using the personal information for other purposes, he said. Contracts required the companies to abide by Facebook policies, he added.

The loopholes, reported by the New York Times, suggest a company that was prepared to bend its own rules to keep valuable partners onside.

"The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017", The Times reported. The social media giant never sold the data and instead shared it with companies with which it entered into partnership agreements. In addition to reviewing the documents, The Times interviewed over 60 former employees of Facebook and its partners, former government officials and privacy advocates, according to the report.

"But people had to explicitly sign in to Facebook first to use a partner's messaging feature", Papamiltiadis wrote. According to the company, the deals did not violate Facebook's 2011 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in which the company agreed not to share users' data without their explicit permission. I've written before that the open data sharing that made the internet useful - for example, by knitting together your Gmail account with an online file storage service so you can email a document to a colleague - helped make our lives easier but also let our digital information loose in a way that most people didn't understand, let alone agree to with eyes wide open. The report says that Spotify could view messages of more than 70 million users a month, although it did not state whether the company had full access to that entire number of users.

Even if all that were true, why didn't Facebook do a full accounting after March of all its partnership arrangements that hooked outside companies into Facebook data?

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The whole debacle is comparable to the technical confusion that enabled Cambridge Analytica to collect data about Facebook user's friends without consent.

In the case of Microsoft, Facebook allowed its Bing search engine to see the names of all Facebook users friends without their permission or knowledge. Amazon issued the following statement in response to our inquiry about the story. Amazon, for example, could see users' names and contact information through their friends.

A few of the companies -Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo - told the Times they used the data appropriately but declined to give further details.

Facebook confirmed in a blog post that such data sharing occurred only after users logged in through a partner's platform. This tool sent Facebook friends messages, via Messenger or Netflix, and was deactivated in 2015 after a year of operating due to a lack of popularity.

"At no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so", Netflix said in an emailed statement.

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

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