Shocking news related to Facebook’s potentially illegal data sharing broke multiple times this week. News that Facebook had shared user data with more than 60 companies, including Chinese device makers, has led many to question whether the US or international governments could force a Facebook shut down amid antitrust, privacy, and national security concerns.
Illegal Data Sharing?
The New York Times reported, “As Facebook sought to become the world’s dominant social media service, it struck agreements allowing phone and other device makers access to vast amounts of its users’ personal information.”
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In violation of the 2011 consent decree from the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook allowed these companies to access user data without their consent. Companies were also able to retrieve data from users’ friends, even friends who believed they had blocked data sharing.
According to the NYT, most of these partnerships are still active, although Facebook began, “winding them down” after they came under increasing scrutiny following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
After the data scandal unfolded, Facebook claimed they had cut off the kind of access Cambridge Analytica exploited in 2014 by the following year. Facebook claimed they had prohibited the collection of data from users’ friends. This meager reassurance wasn’t exactly truthful. Although Facebook had prohibited certain forms of data collection, the companies behind cell phones, tablets, and other devices were exempted from the restrictions.
Serge Egelman, a privacy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, has insisted that more and more data is being collected from your devices. Egelman told the NYT, “You might think that Facebook or the device manufacturer is trustworthy, but the problem is that as more and more data is collected on the device — and if it can be accessed by apps on the device — it creates serious privacy and security risks.”
Ime Archibong, vice president of product partnerships at Facebook, has claimed these companies need access to user data in order to provide the “Facebook experience” through their devices. Facebook argues that since these companies host Facebook on their devices, they’re in the Facebook family, granting them greater access to user data.
For most, this excuse doesn’t check out. These companies are able to access data related to political leanings, relationship status, religion, and more.
While it appears that Facebook has circled the wagons amid the growing data sharing scandal, not all voices from Facebook are in agreement.
The NYT was able to sit down with a number of Facebook engineers and security experts. They expressed that they had been shocked by Facebook’s ability to circumvent privacy restrictions.
Sandy Parakilas, who served as the head of third-party advertising and privacy compliance, left the company in 2012 amid privacy concerns. She has since publicly criticized Facebook for its data breaches and privacy violations.
Addressing the recent revelations, Parakilas said, “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.”
Ashkan Soltani, a privacy consultant and former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, explained, “It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission.”
Facebook Shut Down Around the World?
Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress drew international attention, but Facebook isn’t just under scrutiny in the US.
Facebook has 2.2 billion users around the world. With the revelations about potentially illegal data sharing, many countries have taken up investigations of the social media giant.
In April, the Minister of Communication and Information Technology threatened to make Facebook shut down in Indonesia amid concerns that Facebook would interfere with the 2019 general elections. Facebook is currently being investigated in Indonesia.
The data of 87 million Facebook users was sold to Cambridge Analytica. Nearly three million of these users were European, which has led to investigations by European countries as well.
Lawmakers in Germany are also currently investigating Facebook for privacy violations. In April, Joel Kaplan, Facebook vice president for global public policy, was questioned by members of German Parliament. After the hearing, some members of Parliament publicly shared their views that Facebook had violated privacy rights.
Elisabeth Winkelmeier-Becker, who questioned Kaplan, said, “What we have been trying to determine is whether Facebook has knowingly handed over user data elsewhere without explicit consent. I would never have imagined that this might even be happening secretly via deals with device makers. BlackBerry users seem to have been turned into data dealers, unknowingly and unwillingly.”
Facebook is also under investigation in Australia, the Philippines, the UK, and others.
The international backlash against Facebook, especially in light of the potential interference with the 2016 election in the US, has led some world leaders to threaten a Facebook shut down.
Antitrust Facebook Shut Down?
The US has strong antitrust laws made to prevent monopolies. As Zuckerberg testified before Congress, he was questioned over whether or not Facebook has become a monopoly. Not only does Facebook have over 2.2 billion users, but they also own more than 50 other companies including other social media giants like WhatsApp and Instagram.
Although Zuckerberg denied Facebook has become a monopoly, any teenager can tell you there is no competition for Facebook. Many within Congress and the media were unconvinced by Zuckerberg’s testimony, leading to speculation over whether US antitrust laws could force a Facebook shut down.
National Security Concerns
The news that Facebook had allowed Chinese companies like Huawei access to user data was one of the most shocking revelations of the week.
US officials believe the Chinese government uses smartphones to spy on users. As such, Facebook allowing Chinese smartphone manufacturers to access user data could cause a national security scandal. Some have accused Facebook of enabling the Chinese government to collect intelligence via smart devices and potentially even spy on US citizens.