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Facebook offered big tech firms more user data than previously revealed, NYT reports

Posted: 10:03 AM, Dec 19, 2018
Updated: 2018-12-19 16:08:31Z

Facebook offered more of its users' data to companies including Microsoft and Amazon than it has admitted, according to a new report by The New York Times.

The Times reported late Tuesday that it obtained internal Facebook documents that show how the social media giant arranged to share data with more than 150 companies. The deals helped Facebook gain more users, according to the report, and its partners were able to add new features to their products while effectively avoiding Facebook's usual privacy rules.

Many of the partnerships ended years ago, but the details reported by the Times are striking.

Amazon got access to Facebook users' names and contact information through their friends on the social network, according to the report, while Microsoft's search engine Bing was allowed to "see the names of virtually all Facebook users' friends without consent." Streaming services Netflix and Spotify had the "ability to read Facebook users' private messages," it said.

CNN has not independently viewed the internal documents obtained by the Times.

Despite assurances from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that people " have complete control " over who sees their content, The Times said the internal documents and interviews with 50 former Facebook employees indicated that the company still gave other firms access to user data.

The company's partnerships with Amazon and Apple are still continuing today.

The revelations come at a trying time for Facebook, which has faced a litany of criticism over how it handles user data. The social network said in April that data firm Cambridge Analytica may have harvested information on as many as 87 million users without their knowledge . In October, Facebook revealed that hackers gained access to the phone numbers and email addresses of almost 30 million of its users.

In response to the Times report, Facebook's director of privacy and public policy, Steve Satterfield, said in a statement that its partners "don't get to ignore people's privacy settings."

Facebook has 'work to do' to regain trust

"Over the years, we've partnered with other companies so people can use Facebook on devices and platforms that we don't support ourselves," he said. "Unlike a game, streaming music service, or other third-party app, which offer experiences that are independent of Facebook, these partners can only offer specific Facebook features and are unable to use information for independent purposes."

Facebook knows it's "got work to do to regain people's trust," Satterfield added. "Partnerships are one area of focus and, as we've said, we're winding down the integration partnerships that were built to help people access Facebook."

The Times said the documents and interviews "raise questions about whether Facebook ran afoul of a 2011 consent agreement with the Federal Trade Commission that barred the social network from sharing user data without explicit permission."

Satterfield told the Times that the 2011 FTC agreement "did not require the social network to secure users' consent before sharing data because Facebook considered the partners extensions of itself — service providers that allowed users to interact with their Facebook friends."

In a separate statement posted on Facebook's website, the company said it had not violated the FTC agreement.

"To be clear: none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people's permission, nor did they violate our 2012 settlement with the FTC," wrote Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook's director of developer platforms and programs.

Papamiltiadis said, however, that "we recognize that we've needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information."

Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, Apple and Spotify respond

An Amazon spokesman said in a statement to CNN that it uses the software interfaces "provided by Facebook in order to enable Facebook experiences for our products," such as giving "customers the option to sync Facebook contacts on an Amazon Tablet."

Amazon uses the information in accordance with its own privacy policy, he said.

Microsoft said that data supplied by Facebook stopped appearing in Bing search results after the contract between the two companies ended in February 2016.

"Throughout our engagement with Facebook, we respected all user preferences," Microsoft said in a statement.

Netflix said that it launched a feature in 2014 that "enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix," but that "at no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook, or ask for the ability to do so."

The feature "was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015," Netflix said in a statement.

An Apple spokesman referred CNN to a paragraph in the Times article citing Apple officials as saying they were unaware that Facebook had granted the company's devices any special access. Any shared data would remain on the devices and be available to anyone other than the users, according to Apple.

Spotify said in a statement that its integration with Facebook was designed to help users share and discover music.

"Previously, when users shared music from Spotify, they could add on text that was visible to Spotify," the statement said. "This has since been discontinued. We have no evidence that Spotify ever accessed users' private Facebook messages."

Most of the companies with which Facebook shared data under the arrangements were tech firms such as "online retailers and entertainment sites," according to the report, but they also included automakers and media organizations. The Times reported that it was one of those media groups.