Facebook has active partnerships with four Chinese phone makers that give them special access to social media users’ data, the company said on Wednesday.
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Facebook allows Chinese phone makers special access to user data. So what?
The announcement has drawn further scrutiny to the social media company because the phone makers include Huawei, a telecoms conglomerate with ties to China’s government that US intelligence agencies consider to pose national security risks.
Facebook disclosed the Chinese partnerships after a New York Times report on Sunday raised concerns that Facebook had compromised users’ privacy by allowing around 60 partners to access extensive user information.
The access to user data, which is available to partners including the likes of Apple and Blackberry, is made possible through software known as device-integrated APIs – Application Programming Interfaces, if you must.
Facebook launched the software 10 years ago, around the time the first iPhone hit the market, to let third parties download user data from Facebook and present them on their own devices and apps.
Facebook said this “allowed companies to recreate Facebook-like experiences for their individual devices or operating systems.” In other words, the software let you use Facebook features on phones that may not support official Facebook apps.
Data the companies are allowed to access include information friends have shared with the user, regardless of whether those friends allow third-party apps to access their data.
Facebook’s disclosure of the partnership with Huawei, along with other Chinese companies Lenovo, OPPO and TCL, raised worries that the data of Americans shared on Facebook could be weaponized for political purposes.
In 2014 the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited the Facebook data of millions of US voters for targeted political campaigns. Facebook imposed restrictions on access to its data by third parties the next year, but the partners’ special access had remained.
Senator Marco Rubio, Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said if Facebook granted Huawei special access to social data of Americans, it “might as well have given it directly to the government of China.”
But Facebook said that all information was stored on users’ devices, not on Huawei’s servers.
It has also defended outside companies’ access to its user data by saying that it is tightly controlled, and that Facebook engineers have approved how the data is used.
In a further reassurance, Facebook has said the feature is going away anyway.
In April it announced that it was winding down this kind of access, thanks to the rising popularity of the iOS and Android operating systems.