Facebook has given some of the world’s largest tech companies, such as Spotify, Amazon and Netflix, access to users’ personal information in ways not previously disclosed, according to a report released by the New York Times (NYT).
In the report, published on Tuesday, NYT says internal Facebook documents provided insights into the network’s “data-sharing agreements”, revealing that the data market is “even bigger than many consumers suspected”.
According to the publication, Facebook allowed big companies like Microsoft with its Bing search engine to “view names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent”. In addition, streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify were able to access “users’ private messages”, including the ability to “read, compose and delete messages, and to see all participants on a thread”, NYT reported.
Platforms such as Sony, Microsoft and Amazon could obtain users’ email addresses through their friends, and Yahoo was able to “view streams of friends’ posts”, despite statements saying it had stopped that type of sharing before.
The agreements between the platforms and tech companies applied to more than 150 organisations, most of which are technology and online retail sites.
“The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017,” NYT reported. “[But] some were still in effect this year.”
The partnership, as explained by the report, allowed Facebook to grow by bringing new users, and encourage them to use the platform, while the companies in return “acquired features to make their products more attractive”.
In 2012, Facebook was asked by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to strengthen privacy safeguards,
as the data-sharing deals likely “violated the consent agreement, since users had no way of knowing which companies Facebook shared their data with, and no clear means of granting or withholding permission”.
Facebook maintains that none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without “people’s permission, nor did they violate the settlement with the FTC”.
Facebook has faced multiple scandals in recent years.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that 87 million users’ data was accessed by the British data firm Cambridge Analytica, without proper user consent.
Acknowledging that it had breached users’ trust, Facebook insisted that it implemented stricter privacy protections and Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, assured Congresspersons in April that people “have complete control” over everything they share on Facebook.
However, as recently as last week, it was also reported that a bug may have exposed millions of Facebook users’ private photos to third-party apps.
Facebook responded to the NYT’s report and said that they do not “ignore people’s privacy settings”.
“Facebook’s partners don’t get to ignore people’s privacy settings, and it’s wrong to suggest that they do,” Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy, said in a statement.
“Over the years, we’ve partnered with other companies so people can use Facebook on devices and platforms that we don’t support ourselves.
“Unlike a game, streaming music service, or other third-party apps, 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.”
The platform also responded via a blog post published on Tuesday night.
In the post, Facebook answered different questions about the partner companies, which it referred to as “integration partners” and a specific kind of partnership that ran from 2010 to 2014 called “instant personalisation”.
“To be clear: none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission,” the social media company said.
Companies also rejected the results of the report.
A Netflix spokesperson, in a statement to Al Jazeera, said that it has recently tried various ways to “make Netflix more social”.
In 2014, it launched a feature 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 added.
Netflix never asked for, or accessed, anyone's private messages. We're not the type to slide into your DMs.
— Netflix (@netflix) December 19, 2018
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.
An Apple spokesman referred CNN to a paragraph in the article citing the company officials as saying they were unaware of this agreement.
“Any shared data would remain on the devices and be available to anyone other than the users,” the statement read.
It has been two months since the largest data breach in Facebook’s history and five days since the last time the company announced a significant data leak.