Facebook Is At It Again
By Dan Goldstein and Sean Lally
Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg's "apology tour," it seemed like the social media company might have learned its lesson. But like water from a leaky faucet, the news cycle keeps dripping out new information, revealing a variety of holes and fissures in Facebook's story.
According to a New York Times article published earlier this month, the social media company has been quietly sharing users' private data with mobile device manufacturers - such as Apple, Blackberry, Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung and dozens more. In making these deals, Facebook may have violated a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, which requires the company to disclose its privacy-related behavior.
Unable to build versions of its product for every device, Facebook claimed that the original data-sharing contracts - drawn up nearly a decade ago - were born of necessity because, without them, the social media company wouldn't have been able to keep up with the growing demand.
In a statement, Ime Archibong, Vice President of Product Partnerships, assured users that the shared data enables manufacturers to "recreate Facebook-like experiences." Anything beyond that is strictly prohibited, according to the social media company. Nevertheless, the fact that Zuckerberg failed to disclose these contracts during his apology tour is disturbing, to say the least. It begs the question: what else did he leave out?
Deals with China
The "drip-drip-drip" of the news cycle has only continued, leading to more unanswered questions. Just days after the initial report, the New York Times disclosed controversial data-sharing contracts between Facebook and four device manufacturers in China. One of those manufacturers, Huawei, has been named a national security threat by the NSA.
Despite Huawei's special designation, Facebook granted the manufacturer access to users' private information as well as data the private data of users' friends. As a result, even Republicans have joined the chorus of nay-sayers, demanding higher levels of transparency. "Facebook is learning hard lessons that meaningful transparency is a high standard to meet," said Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, who chairs the Commerce Committee.
Again, it isn't clear whether the data has been misused, but the fact that Facebook has released private information to Chinese manufacturers recalls concerns about the private user data that Cambridge Analytica and Russia allegedly used to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election.
Other Tech Companies
The recent disclosures may just be the tip of the iceberg, as other tech companies - like Google, Twitter, Apple and Amazon - have just as much to prove with regard to user privacy, even if they don't have access to the same kind of in-depth private information.
Apple attempted to nip this issue in the bud, when on June 4th, at its annual development conference, the company launched a number of privacy-related services on its new iOS. Apple's CEO Tim Cook went to great lengths to distance his company from the ongoing Facebook debacle. Asked about what he would do in Zuckerberg's position, he responded: "I wouldn't be in this situation."
In addition to a new dashboard that allows you to track how much time you're spending on each app, a new feature on safari gives users the option of blocking social-sharing plug-ins, which according to Apple, allow companies to track browsing behavior.
Cause for Worry
But, as noted by Quartz, not everyone can afford an iPhone. What's more, we can't be absolutely certain that Apple's privacy rhetoric is grounded in reality. We've seen too many tech companies drop the ball in this regard: Yahoo, when it leaked 3 billion email accounts; Uber, when it attempted to cover up a major data leak affecting 20 million people; and of course, Facebook, when it rendered 87 million users vulnerable to unwanted political persuasion.
When you consider the fact that smartphones can track our location, our phone calls and our camera usage, the recently disclosed data-sharing agreements are further cause for concern. It's true that, in most cases, data-sharing agreements work in our favor, helping marketers target consumers more effectively. But we have to wonder who's selling what to whom and whether our data is being analyzed and used by malicious actors like Cambridge Analytica.
Overly-Aggressive Regulations Aren't the Answer
So how do we prevent another Cambridge Analytica scandal from cropping up? As some have suggested, Congress could impose more regulations. But at what cost? With too many aggressive regulations, innovation would suffer; young start-ups with dreams of being the next Facebook would drown beneath piles of regulatory compliance paperwork. In short, oppressive regulations would kill the golden goose.
Perhaps a few well-chosen guidelines could help, but choosing the "right regulation" is no straightforward task. Facebook has already voluntarily implemented aspects of the Honest Ads Act, but it doesn't seem like this would address concerns around the data-sharing agreements with device manufacturers.
What This Means for Consumers
Sadly, there isn't much consumers can do to prevent device manufacturers from gaining access to personal data. Facebook has belatedly announced that it is adding a "Clear History" feature to its app to allow users more control of who sees their information. In addition, Facebook users can update their privacy settings and all consumers can be more aware of how websites and apps gather their data. The problem is that most people won't take the time to do this.
Users could toss their mobile devices in the dust bin or delete their Facebook accounts, but in today's world, smartphones and social media have become virtual necessities. A recent Brookings Institute study found that 70 percent of US jobs require "moderate to high digital competency." Not only do we need our devices for mundane activities, such as browsing the internet and checking our Instagram; we need them to take part in the formal economy. This leaves consumers and workers in an intractable position.
It's clear that, prior to being caught, Facebook wasn't too concerned about the accessibility of users' data. The news cycle may continue to reveal more disturbing information about Facebook's data-sharing practices, but it seems unlikely, in spite of these disclosures, that the social media company will suffer any substantial losses. It is up to Facebook to come clean once and for all on all privacy-related issues, so it can rebuild the trust of consumers and put this fiasco behind them.
Dan Goldstein is President of Page 1 Solutions, a website marketing company that represents doctors, dentists and attorneys.
Sean Lally is Staff Writer at American Legal News, which focuses on news and information about law and the legal industry.