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Facebook Denies NY Times Report That Device Partners Improperly Accessed Users’ Friends Data

The New York Times on Sunday reported that Facebook’s partnerships with about 60 device makers — including Apple and Samsung — raise “new concerns” about the social giant’s privacy practices. In response, Facebook said the article’s central allegation that the partnerships allowed unauthorized access to users’ friends data is wrong.

The Times report, citing former Facebook engineers and security experts, claimed that the company’s device partners had the ability to “override sharing restrictions,” giving manufacturers access to information even for Facebook users who had set their accounts to disallow sharing of any information with third parties.

According to the report, the issues “raise concerns about the company’s privacy protections and compliance with a 2011 consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.” Under the FTC agreement, Facebook is required to obtain explicit user consent to share data externally.

Facebook says those claims are wrong.

“Partners could not integrate the user’s Facebook features with their devices without the user’s permission,” Ime Archibong, Facebook’s VP of product partnerships, wrote in a blog post. “Contrary to claims by the New York Times, friends’ information, like photos, was only accessible on devices when people made a decision to share their information with those friends. We are not aware of any abuse by these companies.”

In premarket trading Monday, Facebook stock was down about 1.3%.

Facebook’s privacy practices catapulted onto the international stage earlier this year, after the Times and other news orgs revealed that political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained accessed on millions of Facebook users. Facebook insisted that the application programming interfaces it created for Apple and other partners were “very different from the public APIs used by third-party developers, like Aleksandr Kogan,” the researcher who harvested data via a personality-quiz app without users’ consent and then sold it to Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook introduced the API program for mobile-device makers 10 years ago “to help get Facebook onto mobile devices,” Archibong noted in the post, titled “Why We Disagree With the New York Times.” At the time, companies like Facebook — as well as Google, Twitter and YouTube — had to work directly with operating-system and device manufacturers to provide access to their services, he added.

Over the past decade, Facebook has provided device-API access to companies including Amazon, Apple, Blackberry, HTC, Microsoft and Samsung. Now that Facebook’s iOS and Android apps have largely eliminated the need for “bespoke” ways for devices to access the social service, the company is phasing out the program, according to Archibong. Facebook has ended 22 of these partnerships since April, he wrote.

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