Facebook under renewed pressure from data sharing deal with Huawei

Social networking giant Facebook has data sharing partnerships in place with Huawei and at least three other Chinese smartphone makers.

With Facebook still trying to recover from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, any association with vendors from a country falling under increasing suspicion from the current US administration is likely to further complicate its situation. The US seems to view all Chinese companies as potential security risks, so it’s fair to assume it disapproves of involuntary sharing of US citizen’s private data with them.

The news was broken by the New York Times, which then got confirmation from Facebook directly. The agreements date back to 2010 and were apparently created to allow the smartphone OEMs to build additional Facebook-friendly features into their devices. The other named Chinese companies are: Lenovo, Oppo and TCL (Alcatel).

“Facebook officials said the agreements with the Chinese companies allowed them access similar to what was offered to BlackBerry, which could retrieve detailed information on both device users and all of their friends — including religious and political leanings, work and education history and relationship status,” said the NYT report.

It looks like this sort of thing was fairly commonplace back in the day as Facebook strove to make the mobile experience as smooth as possible and smartphone OEMs were keen to be associated with the mega-trend. But attitudes towards data privacy have evolved somewhat since then, something Facebook is painfully aware of.

In a bid to contain this latest crisis Facebook is not only insisting that none of its user data was transferred from phones to the servers of the companies in question, but that it’s also pulling the plug on the Huawei arrangement this week. At the very least this last move seems like another example of Facebook only taking action to protect user data when forced to by the press.

US Senators have wasted little time publicly asking what’s going on, prompting the following statement from Francisco Varela of Facebook to the NYT. “All Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL were controlled from the get-go and Facebook approved everything that was built. Given the interest from 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.”

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Facebook unilaterally pull out of some or all its other data sharing agreements with smartphone makers (it will be interesting to see whether US company Apple is also included). Facebook will feel compelled to take whatever action is necessary to make these sorts of stories go away, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

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