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How Facebook's Data-Sharing Agreement With Device Makers Could Affect Users

Jun 4, 2018
Originally published on June 4, 2018 7:39 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly with more questions about how Facebook treats our personal data. It is All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

KELLY: The New York Times reports that Facebook has had data-sharing agreements with at least 60 other tech companies, including giants like Apple and Amazon and Microsoft. Basically, these companies could access information on Facebook users and their Facebook friends, all without their explicit consent.

Well, let's bring in one of the Times reporters who worked on this story, investigative reporter Michael LaForgia. Welcome.

MICHAEL LAFORGIA: Thank you.

KELLY: Let me start by asking you to paint a picture of how you went about reporting this. I gather you actually tried this out yourself. You got a Blackberry phone.

LAFORGIA: That's right. We plugged in my Facebook account information to this BlackBerry phone after deleting the app. And right away, it started sucking down all kinds of information. It got my email address and cellphone number, both sides of my private messages and the names and user IDs of the people I exchanged messages with.

KELLY: You say you deleted the Facebook app. So you were not logged on to Facebook. This is something the phone was able to access through these other companies?

LAFORGIA: Right. We got the names, birthdays, work and education histories of nearly all of my 550 friends. And then we were actually able to push it a little further and recover the names and pretty important user ID from their friends, which ended up taking us from about 550 people to about 295,000 people just from a single account.

KELLY: Two-hundred-and-ninety-five-thousand people - what? - because of all of the friends of their Facebook friends?

LAFORGIA: That's right.

KELLY: Help me reconcile your story today with comments from Facebook. I mean, it was just a couple of months ago that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was testifying before Congress. And he said Facebook doesn't share data with third parties anymore and hasn't for a couple of years. So what gives here?

LAFORGIA: This was something that we also spent a long time trying to understand. And Facebook has maintained, since we first brought these questions to them, that because these deals are governed by very strict contracts that there is much stricter oversight than there was over third-party app developers.

KELLY: Bottom line - if I am a Facebook user and I read this headline, you know, from your story today that Facebook is sharing information with another company that I may or may not have been aware about, how worried should I be? Should I be worried?

LAFORGIA: Well, I mean, first of all, there's obvious value in being able to open your photo album and post something directly to Facebook without opening the app.

KELLY: You're saying there are practical ways this may be really helpful to Facebook users.

LAFORGIA: Right - or to view your friends' birthdays right from your native contact book or calendar apps. And the reality is it's unlikely that these companies are doing anything untoward with this information according to experts that we've talked to. But the danger comes in when these companies either store this information on their own servers or expose it on the device to third-party apps that can sync up with it and then do who knows what with it.

KELLY: What's Facebook's saying in response to your story?

LAFORGIA: Facebook has put out a statement saying it disagrees with our story. But they haven't disputed any of the facts. They say that in the cases of these device partnerships, they consider the outside companies extensions of Facebook, not third parties. They also appear to be making the case that when my device collects the data of my friends, I then own that information. And it's up to me whether I want to risk sharing it or not by syncing it up with other apps.

KELLY: Putting some of the onus on Facebook users to take responsibility for being aware of how their data may be used.

LAFORGIA: That seems to be the case. Right.

KELLY: And what's your takeaway? If I could ask you to take off your reporter hat for a second and put on your Facebook user hat, are you concerned by what your reporting has uncovered?

LAFORGIA: It turns out that I did use a BlackBerry device to access personal information of about 550 of my closest friends, so I probably owe several hundred people...

KELLY: (Laughter).

LAFORGIA: ...An apology. But I will not be issuing that apology over Facebook - maybe a postcard. Who knows?

KELLY: That is New York Times investigative reporter Michael LaForgia. Thanks so much.

LAFORGIA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.