With all the negative publicity Facebook generated in 2018, one could be forgiven for thinking its most egregious privacy violations had been covered. Unfortunately, one would be wrong.
In the final days of 2018, a scathing exposé highlighted the lengths to which Facebook is willing to sell out its users, as well as some of the major — and previously unnamed — tech players who participated.
Here’s what we know so far about this rapidly developing story.
The cost of doing business
On December 18, 2018, The New York Times published a groundbreaking exposé based on the analysis of hundreds of internal Facebook documents and dozens of interviews with former employees.
The records, which revealed the company’s data sharing practices with strategic partners, proved something security experts have long suspected and Facebook has long denied: Violating user privacy is a core component of Facebook’s business model and not just a byproduct of running a massive social media network.
The report also proves another long-held suspicion by analysts — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg knowingly and repeatedly lied to Congress. In the quest to achieve historical growth, Facebook offered more than 150 companies unprecedented access to user data. Some plans date back to 2010, and records obtained by the Times show that all 150+ deals were active as recent as 2017.
Key takeaways from the report
There is a lot to digest in the Times’ article, and it’s obvious this is only the tip of the iceberg. In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, which required months of dedicated coverage to paint a complete picture.
While we can count on a flood of new information in the coming days, there are some takeaways that demand immediate coverage.
Netflix and Spotify had access to private messages
You read that headline correctly. Facebook allowed streaming services Netflix and Spotify to access users’ private messages. In a 2014 blog post, Netflix announced a Facebook Messenger integration would allow users to “easily and privately recommend the shows you love with the people you care about.”
That’s not all it did. Facebook granted Netflix the ability to send private messages on users’ behalf, as well as read, write, and delete messages. Both Netflix and Spotify say they were unaware of the additional powers they were granted and never used any functionality outside of the “recommendation feature” for which it was designed.
Yahoo, Bing, and Amazon also benefited
Streaming services weren’t the only ones to receive special treatment. Search engines like Yahoo and Bing were also given privileged access. Bing was allowed to see the names of “virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent.” Yahoo had access to private information of users’ friends as well, and they could access this data as recently as this summer.
E-commerce behemoth Amazon was allowed to access users’ contact information and names through Facebook friends. However, the company defended its partnership with the social media platform on Wednesday, when a spokesperson commented:
Facebook’s justification for sharing the data
Facebook representatives have made startling claims as to how they can allow partners such overreaching access. You can read about a few of them in Facebook’s recent statement, Let’s Clear Up a Few Things About Facebook’s Partners.
One of the most striking justifications, however, comes from Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s director of privacy and public policy. When asked if partnerships like these violated a prior FTC agreement, Satterfield claimed Facebook didn’t have to secure user consent before sharing the data because Facebook considered the partners an extension of itself.
The future of Facebook and privacy as we know it
Despite the many scandals Facebook has caused, it has remained under the rule of one man — and that may not change anytime soon. How is it that Mark Zuckerberg, perched atop the adult booster seat in his ivory tower, has weathered so many storms?
While there are certainly many factors, none play such a vital role as the voting rights he has.
Facebook has a dual class structure of shares. There are Class A shares, which everyday investors can purchase. For each Class A share an investor possesses, they receive one vote. However, there are also Class B shares. These are reserved for a very select few, including Mark Zuckerberg. Instead of the traditional one vote equaling one share, each Class B stock is worth ten votes.
When you factor in Zuck’s Class B holdings, he controls around 60 percent of the vote. This means that he can retain control of the company as long as he likes, pending the government doesn’t force his resignation.
That means it’s up to each of us to safeguard our privacy from others. And in today’s digital era, we’re only as strong as our weakest settings. Make sure yours are as strong as possible with our guide, Protecting Your Privacy: Best Practices for Mobile, Social, and Search Settings.