A New York Times probe has revealed the shocking true depths of Facebook's data mining of its users, both for itself and for powerful partners, mostly without the users' knowledge. While publicly vowing to safeguard that information, the social media behemoth has been sharing it with some of the biggest names in tech, including Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and dozens of others.
Those partners had deeper access to Facebook customers' data than has been publicly revealed, all with the effect of driving up Facebook's value. Facebook is the single most powerful data-gathering mechanism in human history. It is almost completely unregulated, and Americans now have evidence it has been brazenly abusing that situation. It's time Congress does more than just hold hearings.
While conservatives have obsessed over largely exaggerated concerns about liberal bias on Facebook, and others have focused on the genuine threat of Russia and other hostile powers using it to infiltrate and manipulate American politics, it appears now that one of the biggest problems is a more pedestrian one: corporate greed.
The Times' report, based on internal Facebook documents and interviews, indicates the company has used the information of its 2.2 billion users to strike up partnerships with other Silicon Valley giants to a far greater extent than it has ever acknowledged — with the benefits of those partnerships flowing back to Facebook in the form of increased usage and ad revenue.
Under these partnerships, Facebook allowed Microsoft's search engine to see the names of Facebook users' friends without their consent. Worse, Netflix and Spotify were given the ability to read Facebook users' private messages. Yahoo was allowed to view streams of friends' posts even after Facebook told the public it wasn't allowing that kind of access. It appears likely Facebook has violated a 2011 consent agreement it reached with the Federal Trade Commission barring it from sharing users' information without those users' explicit permission.
The findings "underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond," the Times reported.
That "commodity" is the private lives of people who believed they were using Facebook's platform to communicate with friends and family — not being used by a mammoth corporation intent on raiding their address books and scouring their personal conversations for profit-generating tidbits.
It was just a few months ago that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg assured Congress that users of the platform have full control over their own data. That claim, it now appears, was bogus.
It's time for Congress to criminalize this unauthorized data mining and make clear that if it keeps happening, the consequences for those company officials won't be just financial, but personal. In the meantime, be forewarned: Nothing on Facebook is private.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH