Facebook let some partners to access users' friend data after it shut off access to most devs in 2015; sources: partners included Nissan and RBC Capital Markets (Wall Street Journal)

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before a House committee in April.


Photo:

Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Facebook
Inc.


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struck customized data-sharing deals with a select group of companies, some of which had special access to user records well after the point in 2015 that the social-media giant has said it cut off all developers from that information, according to court documents, company officials and people familiar with the matter.

The unreported agreements, known internally as “whitelists,” also allowed certain companies to access additional information about a user’s Facebook friends, the people familiar with the matter said. That included information like phone numbers and a metric called “friend link” that measured the degree of closeness between users and others in their network, the people said.

Many of these customized deals were separate from Facebook’s data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device makers, which it disclosed this week. Several lawmakers and regulators have subsequently said those device-maker arrangements merit further investigation.

The whitelist deals, with companies including RBC Capital Markets and

Nissan Motor
Co.

, were struck with advertisers or Facebook partners that were valuable for other reasons, according to some of the people familiar with the matter. They show that Facebook gave special data access to a broader universe of companies than was previously known. They also raise further questions about who has access to the data of billions of Facebook users and why they had access, at a time when Congress is demanding the company be held accountable for the flow of that data.

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Facebook officials said the company struck a small number of deals with developers largely to improve the user experience, test new features and allow certain partners to wind down previously existing data-sharing projects. The company said it allowed a “small number” of partners to access data about a user’s friends after the data was shut off to developers in 2015. Many of the extensions lasted weeks and months, Facebook said. It isn’t clear when all of the deals ultimately expired or how many companies got extensions.

The vast majority of developers who plugged into Facebook’s platform weren’t aware that the company offered this preferred access or extensions to certain partners, according to the people familiar with the matter.

Privacy experts said Facebook users also likely didn’t know how their data was being shared. “I don’t think anyone would have a reasonable understanding of how widespread this was,” said

David Vladeck,

director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Protection Bureau from 2009 until 2013 and now a professor at Georgetown Law.

Mr. Vladeck said any deals made after 2012 could draw scrutiny about whether Facebook was in violation of its settlement that year with the FTC, under which the firm is required to give the social network’s users clear and prominent notice and obtaining their express consent before sharing their information beyond their privacy settings. Facebook said Friday it hasn’t violated the settlement.

The revelations come as Facebook is dealing with the fallout in March related to the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, a political analytics firm that aided President

Donald Trump’s

2016 presidential campaign and purchased data on 87 million users from another developer. The crisis sparked questions about Facebook’s lax oversight of its platform, an FTC investigation into whether the company violated the 2012 settlement and two congressional appearances by Facebook Chief Executive

Mark Zuckerberg

in April.

More to come


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