Facebook shared user information with 52 hardware and software makers, including some based in China, under agreements designed to make its social media platform work more effectively on mobile devices, the company said in information furnished to Congress late Friday night.
The acknowledgement, which came in more than 700 pages of replies to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is the fullest to date regarding reports that Facebook shared user data with some companies for years after it stopped doing so with most app makers. Some of the partnerships continued into this year, and some continue to this day, the documents say.
The list of these partners includes major American tech brands such Apple, Amazon.com, and Microsoft, along with South Korean tech giant Samsung and China-based companies Huawei and Alibaba. Not all of the companies are device makers; some make operating systems or other software. (Jeff Bezos, the co-founder and chief executive of Amazon also owns The Washington Post.)
“We engaged companies to build integrations for a variety of devices, operating systems and other products where we and our partners wanted to offer people a way to receive Facebook or Facebook experiences,” the company said in the documents. “These integrations were built by our partners, for our users, but approved by Facebook.”
The social network has been sharply criticised over reports that it shared detailed information on its users with a wide range of outside companies. They have taken special issue with Facebook’s relationships with Chinese device makers, particularly Huawei, which some lawmakers have alleged is too closely intertwined with the country’s government, posing even greater privacy and security risks to users.
The 747-page disclosure from Facebook came in response to roughly 1,200 questions posted by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which questioned Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in April. The replies were due by Friday, and Facebook submitted them after 10pm.
The wide-ranging queries grew out of allegations that Facebook had not done enough to protect user privacy when political consultancy Cambridge Analytica gained access to information of 87 million Facebook users, including 71 million Americans, in 2014.
Reports about the sharing of data with device makers caused renewed controversy this month because the practice continued years after Facebook began restricting access to the user information available to app makers – a move Facebook portrayed as a sign that it had grown more careful in guarding user privacy.
Before the data sharing was discontinued, Apple, for example, allowed Facebook users to download profile photos for their friends and use them in their iPhone contact lists. Some BlackBerry devices appeared to access several categories of data, including messages.
The sharing of data with device makers continued into this year, with Facebook curtailing it in April, a time when Facebook was coming under fresh scrutiny over the Cambridge Analytica controversy. Facebook has defended the practices as helpful to making the social media platform perform properly on the hundreds of individual mobile devices sold to customers worldwide.
The release Saturday morning was the second batch of questions that Facebook has submitted to Congress since Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. The first, of roughly 500 pages, was furnished earlier this month to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee.
Cambridge Analytica used the data it accessed from Facebook to help Republican candidates target voters with political messages based on psychological evaluations of their personalities, including personal preferences and other information shared on social media.
News reports revealing that Facebook data had been used in this way triggered an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, which is probing whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree on its privacy practices, and also generated sharp bipartisan complaints about data management by the company. Reports about the sharing of data with device makes sharpened that scrutiny.
Under the 2011 decree with the FTC, Facebook is required to obtain permission before sharing a user’s private information with a “third party” in a way that exceeds that user’s existing privacy settings. Facebook officials said that device makers such as Samsung or BlackBerry were suppliers, not “third parties.”