Another day, another scandalous report on Facebook abusing user trust. This one comes from The New York Times, that Facebook provided partner companies like Spotify and Netflix broad abilities to inspect user data.
Even if users had disabled all sharing on Facebook through security preferences, some of these partner companies had the ability to scan through profiles anyway. "Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent," the Times declares, "and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages."
The partnerships started in 2010, amidst growing competition from Twitter and a desire to stay relevant for users. They included over 150 companies, ranging from the Royal Bank of Canada to the Times itself. While Facebook never sold its data, the California-based tech giant allowed partners access to data relevant to their own interests.
On one level, this was a continuation of the company's business model—free to use while receiving ads. But these partnerships attempted to hide themselves from users at every turn. Facebook's partnership with Apple, for example, included the power for Apple to hide indicators that the company was data tracking. Apples devices, from the Apple Watches to MacBook Pros, had "the numbers and calendar entries of people who had changed their account settings to disable all sharing," according to the Times report.
Apple claims that they were "not aware" Facebook had granted their devices special access to data. Netflix and Spotify have issued similar responses.
UPDATE 12/20/18: A Netflix spokesperson sent PopMech the following statement:
"Over the years we have tried various ways to make Netflix more social. One example of this was a feature we launched in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix. It was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015. At no time did we access people’s private messages on Facebook, or ask for the ability to do so."
These partnerships were not subject to privacy-program reviews, according to the report. Even when Facebook announced major privacy reforms in 2014, many of these partnerships continued unabated. As recently as last year, Yahoo had access to the data of nearly 100,000 people a month. A Russian social media company with ties to the Kremlin, Yandex, had access to Facebook’s unique user IDs for years, even after Facebook had restricted access to other pieces of data due to security reasons.
It would be hard to think of a company whose public image has taken a stronger battering in 2018 than Facebook. Once the must-have account for college students on the cutting edge, the company has been accused of everything from to precipitating .
Along the way, the company has repeatedly announced massive privacy breaches, most recently when 6.8 million users had photos given to third-party apps without their consent. But as the Times report shows, these users most likely had their privacy violated several times over even before their photos were shared.
Wherever Facebook goes in 2019, the company has a mountain to climb in re-earning consumer trust.