Recent reports have revealed that Facebook had signed a data-sharing deal with 60 consumer device-manufacturing companies across the world including four Chinese companies. Among these companies is Huawei, which has been censured by the US government.
Facebook has claimed that the data was meant to help these devices integrate Facebook services into their products. Facebook has been banned in China since 2009.
Facebook is one of the largest social media corporations in the world. Founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004, it had approximately 2 billion monthly users in 2017, and has over 14 billion registered users. Facebook has faced increasing controversy in recent years. The company has been criticised for its failure to address hate speech and terrorist propaganda, the presence of bots, and the proliferation of “fake news”. Facebook is thought to have been a key influencer in the 2016 US Presidential election and the Brexit vote, where it allegedly served as a platform for Russian interference.
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal drew global attention to the degree of control Facebook has over personal information, sparking debates on privacy and data use. A data breach allowed the political consultancy and data mining firm to gain access to the personal information of up to 87 million Facebook users.
Facebook collects and stores several kinds of personal information from its users, including date of birth, education, employment, religion and political views, location history, mobile phone numbers, and preferences from browser “cookies”. Critics claim that Facebook’s business model itself is based on data exploitation. Mark Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook collects data on both users and non-users, and Facebook has faced litigation from European courts on this issue. The Federal Trade Commission is currently undertaking a probe to find out whether Facebook failed to protect customer privacy.
Huawei is a Chinese multinational telecommunications giant, and the third largest smartphone company in the world. It has been recognised as one of the leading telecommunication vendors developing 5G technology. Huawei was founded in 1987, by Ren Zhengfei, a former People’s Liberation Army officer and is thought to have close ties to the Chinese Government. The company has received billions in credit from Chinese banks, and is popular in markets across Asia, South America, and the Middle East. However, Huawei has been unable to penetrate the US market due to scepticism from Washington. The US has grown increasingly wary of allowing foreign entities into its telecommunication systems. Washington blocked a deal between Huawei and AT&T due to security concerns and banned the Pentagon from buying Huawei technology.
Facebook has disclosed that it had data sharing partnerships with four Chinese smartphone companies namely Huawei, Lenovo, OPPO, and TCL. This disclosure comes after a New York Times report published on June 3rd revealed that Facebook had such partnerships with 60 device makers across the globe. The report claimed that the social media network gave these companies “access to vast amounts of information on users and their friends.” Other companies include Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry, and Samsung.
Mark Warner, a top democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "The news that Facebook provided privileged access to Facebook’s API to Chinese device makers like Huawei and TCL raises legitimate concerns. I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers.” Reports have noted that the deal could potentially violate a 2011 privacy agreement with the FTC.
Facebook had announced in April that it would be ending data sharing partnerships with these companies. It has said that it will end the Huawei agreement this week. However, it has defended the partnerships, claiming that they were primarily in order to improve Facebook “experiences” for users. “These partners signed agreements that prevented people’s Facebook information from being used for any other purpose than to recreate Facebook-like experiences,” Ime Archibong, Facebook vice president of product partnerships wrote.
"Huawei is the third largest mobile manufacturer globally and its devices are used by people all around the world, including in the United States," said vice president of Mobile Partnerships, Francisco Varela. "Facebook along with many other US tech companies have worked with them and other Chinese manufacturers to integrate their services onto these phones."
The information provided to the four Chinese companies were reportedly similar to that provided to other companies such as BlackBerry. This information could include religious and political leanings, work and education history and relationship status of the user and their Friends, NYT reported. Varela noted that the integrations with Chinese companies were “controlled from the get go” and that “all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei’s servers.” Facebook said that it is “not aware of any abuse by these companies.”
Our assessment is that it is becoming increasingly clear how much control tech companies such as Facebook have over personal data. Recent events have raised valid concerns that personal data can be weaponised by third parties and other malicious entities, including governments. Mark Zuckerberg himself has admitted that regulation may be required to monitor social networks including Facebook. As stated previously, we believe that transparency and informed consent are essential to monitor how corporations use private data.