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Facebook comes clean about the user data they collect and share

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In March this year, the news broke that Facebook allowed Cambridge Analytica, a data analysis firm, to access the private information of 50 million Facebook users. On 10 April, Mark Zuckerberg, Chief Executive Officer of Facebook, attended a hearing under the umbrella of the Energy and Commerce Committee, where he was questioned by members of the Senate and House Committees about Facebook's data collection and sharing practices.

Last week, Facebook Inc. officially responded to the questions (over 2000 were received in total) in a 749-page document. Below are some of the highlights about the user data Facebook collects and share.

Facebook collects user data pertaining to three categories. What people do and share on Facebook, and who they connect with. Secondly, data about the devices people use to connect to Facebook, and thirdly, they collect data about people that are shared with them from "partners."

An example of the latter is that if you say liked a destination on Bookings.com, or if you used Safari Now to book accommodation, you'll suddenly see ads for that destination appearing on your Facebook feed. We've talked about this in our coverage of how Microsoft wants to use machine learning to combat cheating, as well as in "A look at Google's vision of total data collection and its usage." As Facebook Inc. explains, it is basically how the Internet works.

When it comes to who Facebook shares user data with, they first explain how data sharing with third parties was first introduced in Facebook. Remember years ago when all those "Discover your personality" type tests started surfacing? Or "See what you will look like as a celebrity" All those user experiences has a window that you have to click to permit it to access your photos and data. It also clearly states that Facebook will share that data, but no one saw how deep the rabbit hole could go.

In April 2014 Facebook introduced stricter rules for these apps, and four years later, the company states that their "investigation is ongoing" about exactly how this should function within the laws of privacy. Some people live for these user experiences, and frankly, it is concerning that Facebook still doesn't know how to regulate it properly. Their answer currently seems to be to spam users with notifications about privacy rules and to delete these apps from Facebook. If you ever used that "myPersonality" app, you should know that it is one of the companies Facebook plans to audit for its excessive collection of user data.

"Facebook has rejected more than half of the apps submitted for App Review between April 2014 and April 2018, including Kogan’s second app," explains Facebook Inc. "We are changing Login so that the only data that an app can request without app review will include name, profile photo, and email address."

It is interesting that Facebook only now discovers loopholes within their system. "Separately, in April, we found out that a feature that lets users look someone up by their phone number and email may have been misused by browsers looking up people’s profiles in large volumes with phone numbers they already had. When we found out about the abuse, we shut this feature down.

The problem that Facebook is now facing is that they've discovered that "data scraping" happened more frequently than they anticipated or expected. These companies, Like Cambridge, took the data - and kept it for future use. Yes, Facebook is much stricter now and careful to inform users of what they share, but a lot of damage has been done.

Facebook pledges to audit all data collected by third-party apps that fall into certain categories and which was highlighted by the Krogan App. Besides these user experiences, Facebook also shares information with "integration partnerships." These companies are specifically selected to either build Facebook experiences or features on their platforms (like Blackberry).

Before April 2018 Facebook had 52 such partnerships; they have since discontinued 38 of the 52 companies and plans to shut down an additional 8. This means Facebook is only keeping 6 of the 52 companies, and only allowing 3 of the 6 to have the same level of relationship as before. The data scraping dangers of these partnerships must've been tremendous.

The 6 Companies are:

  1. Tobii (an accessibility app for people with ALS)
  2. Amazon
  3. Apple (only because of a license agreement

The other three companies will have limited usage - people will only receive Facebook notifications in their web browsers:

  1. Mozilla
  2. Alibaba
  3. Opera

I've not read through all 749 pages, but what stands out so far is that Facebook initially left a lot of loopholes for third-party apps to collect user data - and now that information belongs to the companies behind these apps. In April 2014, Facebook implemented the first set of regulations to protect its users better. In April 2018 that initial 'mistake' was published on news sites around the world. Facebook is only now publicly taking responsibility for that breach.

"However, with the benefit of hindsight, we nonetheless wish we had notified people whose information may have been impacted, even though there was no legal obligation to do so," continues Facebook Inc. "Facebook has since notified all people potentially impacted with a detailed notice at the top of News Feed."

You can read the full document here.

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"Facebook has rejected more than half of the apps submitted for App Review"

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