Business Technology

Saturday 21 September 2019

Facebook gave big tech firms access to users' messages

Helen Dixon: Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Helen Dixon: Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The office of the Irish data protection commissioner (DPC) is "assessing" whether to take action on the latest Facebook data privacy controversy, where other apps were allowed to get access to users' personal messages.

The Irish watchdog, the main regulator for Facebook in Europe, has already launched two significant investigations into the social media giant, possibly leaving it open to a fine of more than €1bn.

A spokesman for commissioner Helen Dixon's office told the Irish Independent the regulatory body was "aware" of the latest Facebook controversy and is "currently assessing what next steps, if any, are required".

First reported by the 'New York Times', it was revealed Facebook - which has more than two million Irish users - allowed Microsoft's Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users' friends without consent.

Facebook also gave companies like Netflix and Spotify the ability to read users' private messages. And it permitted Amazon to obtain users' names and contact information through their friends.

However, a Facebook executive defended the company's behaviour, saying existing consent formats allowed the data access.

"None of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people's permission," said Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook's director of developer platforms and programmes, in a blog post.

Facebook said the access to these companies, known as integration partners, was aimed at helping users access their Facebook accounts or specific features on devices and platforms built by other companies like Apple, Amazon, Blackberry and Yahoo.

It could also help users see recommendations from their Facebook friends on other popular apps and websites like Netflix and Spotify.

Facebook said the users needed to sign in with their Facebook account to use these features offered by the likes of Apple and Amazon.

But it is the latest in a series of data concerns and scandals that have plagued the world's biggest social media company.

Last week, Facebook admitted a privacy error that could possibly affect seven million people. It said a bug may have allowed up to 1,500 apps access to private photos held by users on the social site.

The Irish DPC has said it will investigate this incident under the tough new GDPR data law, which can see a company fined up to 4pc of its annual turnover. In Facebook's case, this could amount to around €1.5bn.

Facebook is already facing an official probe from the Irish DPC for a previous privacy leak in September, which the company said may have affected 30 million people.

"The Irish DPC has received a number of breach notifications from Facebook since the introduction of the GDPR on May 25, 2018," said a spokesman for the Irish watchdog.

One of the companies caught up in the current Facebook breach said that it never took advantage of Facebook's data access.

"At no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so," a Netflix spokesperson said.

Netflix had launched a feature in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix. The spokesperson said Netflix shut the feature in 2015.

Irish Independent

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