Science & Tech

Internal Docs: Facebook Gave Large Companies Privileged Access to User Data

(Aly Song/REUTERS)

Internal Facebook emails released Wednesday by a British lawmaker revealed that the company gave privileged access to user data to certain large firms, such as Netflix, Airbnb, and Lyft, after determining that the data should not be shared broadly.

MP Damian Collins, a strident critic of the social-media giant, released the emails Wednesday after British law enforcement seized them from the founder of Six4Three, an app developer currently involved in a lawsuit against Facebook in California, where the emails were under seal.

Facebook changed its policies in 2014 and 2015 to prevent independent app developers from accessing data associated with the friends of users who download a particular app running on Facebook’s programming. But, according to Collins, the emails demonstrate that Facebook created a so-called “white list” of particularly profitable companies that they allowed to continue accessing the otherwise restricted data.

While it remains unclear exactly what criteria qualified a company for inclusion on the “white list,” at least one of the seized emails indicates that companies that spent generously on Facebook advertising would be given privileged access.

In a statement released Wednesday, Facebook disputed Collins’s characterization of the policy, asserting that the company simply allowed white-listed developers access to a list of a users’ friends, rather than providing personal data associated with those friends.

“We changed our platform policies in 2014/15 to prevent apps from requesting permission to access friends’ private information. The history of Cambridge Analytica shows this was the right thing to do,” said the statement, referring to the recent revelation that a third-party developer sold friend data to Trump-linked consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 campaign. “For most developers, we also limited their ability to request a list of who someone’s friends were, unless those friends were also using the developer’s app. In some situations, when necessary, we allowed developers to access a list of the users’ friends. This was not friends’ private information but a list of your friends (name and profile pic).”

High-ranking Facebook executives, including founder Mark Zuckerberg and Director of Platform Partnerships Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, also discussed the possibility of incentivizing developers to spend more on advertising by restricting access to user data to developers that spend in excess of $250,000 on advertising annually. Facebook made clear in its Wednesday statement that such a scheme was never implemented.

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