New Facebook privacy scandal reveals data deals with Chinese tech giants

6 Jun 2018

Image: k.nopparat/Shutterstock

Social network confirms it had a data-sharing partnership with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL.

Facebook has become embroiled in a new data privacy controversy after it emerged that the social network that connects 2.2bn people across the planet had data-sharing deals with Chinese tech firms.

It has been confirmed by Facebook that it has had data-sharing partnerships with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL since 2010.

‘The news that Facebook provided privileged access to Facebook’s API to Chinese device makers like Huawei and TCL raises legitimate concerns, and I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers’

Future Human

The social network had similar data-sharing agreements – ostensibly to allow the manufacturers to develop Facebook experiences on their own platforms – with other manufacturers including Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry and Samsung.

Legitimate concerns?

The issue is extremely sensitive in the US where intelligence officials have flagged Chinese tech manufacturers as national security threats as a new tech-oriented Cold War emerges.

But are these actually valid security threats or protectionist tactics to defend American industry in the face of rising Asian superiority in fields like internet of things and 5G?

In recent months, the Trump administration vetoed a potential acquisition of Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom. The administration also implemented a trade ban against China’s second largest telecoms manufacturer, ZTE, after it was caught illegally shipping goods to Iran and North Korea.

According to The New York Times, the deals with the various tech firms were part of an effort by Facebook that began in 2007 to drive more mobile users onto its network, a kind of digital land grab, offering some Facebook features such as address books, like buttons and status updates.

Where it gets tricky, however, is the ability for the companies to retrieve detailed information on both device users and all of their friends, including religious and political leanings, work and education history and relationship status.

In the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica data scandal where by the details of 87m users were compromised and potentially used to swing a pivotal election and referendum in the US and UK respectively, another data scandal is the last thing Facebook needs.

In the days following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, Facebook saw billions of dollars wiped from its market value as jittery investors voted with their feet.

The news of the deals with phone-makers also comes at a time when consumers are getting suspicious about their smartphones and, in particular, the seemingly always-on listening capability, with urban myths abounding about targeted advertising based on private conversations.

Did the data stay on phones or land on servers?

Facebook has downplayed the privacy aspect of the revelations. For example, it said that Huawei used its private access to feed a social phone app that allowed users to view messages and social media accounts in one place. It said that the data that was shared with Huawei, staying on its phones and not on Huawei’s servers.

The deals are also being viewed as efforts by Facebook to enter the Chinese market, where the social network has been blocked since 2009.

In all, it is understood that Facebook had given at least 60 device-makers access to users’ data – including that of their friends – without obtaining explicit consent from users.

“Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL were controlled from the get go – and we approved the Facebook experiences these companies built,” Francisco Varela, vice-president of Facebook mobile partnerships, said in a statement.

“Given the interest from [US] Congress, we wanted to make clear that all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei’s servers.”

The latest revelations are hardly good news for Facebook but are also an unwelcome development for Huawei, the world’s third-largest smartphone maker by volume.

Huawei has been struggling to gain a foothold in the US market due to concerns expressed by security bodies including the FBI, NSA and CIA, harking back to Cold War-era suspicions over national security.

And now the hackles of top US politicians are up, with one US Senator, Mark Warner, citing 2012 reports of close relationships between Huawei and the Chinese communist party.

“The news that Facebook provided privileged access to Facebook’s API to Chinese device-makers like Huawei and TCL raises legitimate concerns, and I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years