Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Facebook Provides Sensitive User Data to Corporate Partners

Sam Biddle, the Intercept:

The source, who discussed Actionable Insights on the condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak to the press, explained that Facebook has offered the service to carriers and phone makers ostensibly of free charge, with access to Actionable Insights granted as a sweetener for advertising relationships. According to the source, the underlying value of granting such gratis access to Actionable Insights in these cases isn’t simply to help better service cell customers with weak signals, but also to ensure that telecoms and phone makers keep buying more and more carefully targeted Facebook ads. It’s exactly this sort of quasi-transactional data access that’s become a hallmark of Facebook’s business, allowing the company to plausibly deny that it ever sells your data while still leveraging it for revenue. Facebook may not be “selling” data through Actionable Insights in the most baldly literal sense of the word — there’s no briefcase filled with hard drives being swapped for one containing cash — but the relationship based on spending and monetization certainly fits the spirit of a sale. A Facebook spokesperson declined to answer whether the company charges for Actionable Insights access.

The confidential Facebook document provides an overview of Actionable Insights and espouses its benefits to potential corporate users. It shows how the program, ostensibly created to help improve underserved cellular customers, is pulling in far more data than how many bars you’re getting. According to one portion of the presentation, the Facebook mobile app harvests and packages eight different categories of information for use by over 100 different telecom companies in over 50 different countries around the world, including usage data from the phones of children as young as 13. These categories include use of video, demographics, location, use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, personal interests, device information, and friend homophily, an academic term of art. A 2017 article on social media friendship from the Journal of the Society of Multivariate Experimental Psychology defined “homophily” in this context as “the tendency of nodes to form relations with those who are similar to themselves.” In other words, Facebook is using your phone to not only provide behavioral data about you to cellphone carriers, but about your friends as well.

Among the most vastly underreported stories in tech is Facebook’s unique ability to create deep associative data between users and those who did not consent to their privacy-invasive practices. It doesn’t matter if you do not use Facebook’s products; if any of your friends do, Facebook still knows a lot about you.