Facebook’s data deals are under criminal investigation

Prosecutors are investigating deals struck between Facebook and makers of mobile computing devices

Photo: EPA Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into data deals Facebook struck with some of the world’s largest technology companies, intensifying scrutiny of the social media giant’s business practices as it seeks to rebound from a year of scandal and setbacks.

According to a NYT report, at least two companies that make smartphones and other devices have received subpoenas from a New York grand jury related to how they used Facebook user data that they received under deals with the social networking company. The companies were not named in the report. Yet, there are among more than 150, including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Sony, that had cut sharing deals with the world’s dominant social media platform.

Under the terms of these deals, which have mostly been discontinued, people were allowed to access their Facebook accounts, or specific Facebook features, on platforms from other companies, including Blackberry and Windows Mobile phones. In exchange, the platform providers got data about the users necessary to make these functions work. However, users did not always know the extent of the information collected and shared. As Times states, "the sharing deals empowered Microsoft’s Bing search engine to map out the friends of virtually all Facebook users without their explicit consent, and allowed Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends". In the meantime Apple was able to hide from Facebook users all indicators that its devices were even asking for data.

If these statements turn out to be true, than the partnerships undoubtedly violate a 2011 consent agreement between and the US' Federal Trade Commission, stemming from allegations that the company had shared data in ways that deceived consumers. The deals also appear to contradict statements by Mark Zuckerberg and other executives that Facebook had clamped down several years ago on sharing the data of users’ friends with outside developers.

“We are cooperating with investigators and take those probes seriously,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement after the report was released. “We’ve provided public testimony, answered questions and pledged that we will continue to do so.”

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