Facebook Says It Shared Users' Data With Chinese Companies

Jun 6, 2018
Originally published on June 6, 2018 8:07 am
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Facebook is under scrutiny again. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the company had these data-sharing partnerships with at least 60 device manufacturers, including Apple and Samsung. Now, there is news that at least four of those manufacturers are Chinese companies, and one of them, the smartphone maker Huawei, is known to have ties with the Chinese government. Facebook is defending these partnerships, but now lawmakers in the U.S. have more questions. NPR's Laura Sydell is here to explain this. Hey, Laura.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

MARTIN: All right. So what kind of information are we talking about when we say Facebook was sharing information with these companies and this particular Chinese company?

SYDELL: Well, Facebook says in order to make its app a positive experience for people, it needs to share information with the hardware makers. And in this case, it did allow them access to things like all your personal information if you were a user, as well as all your friends' information, their religious and political leanings, work, education history, relationship status - all of that kind of stuff.

MARTIN: Yeah, that's a lot. That's a lot.

SYDELL: Yeah, that's quite a lot.

MARTIN: So this company that has generated a lot of attention, this is Huawei, it apparently has ties to the Chinese government. What do we know about this company and how they might have used the information?

SYDELL: Yeah. Well, I want to say that this particular company was the subject of a 2012 report by congressional investigators. And they say that Huawei actually took billions of dollars of credit from the Chinese state-owned policy bank and that helped it fuel expansion into Africa, Europe, around the world. And its founder is a former engineer in the People's Liberation Army. And there was actually a concern in this congressional report that the company could be used to harm U.S. telecommunications networks.

MARTIN: OK, so what does that mean for the information that Facebook shared with them?

SYDELL: (Laughter) Well, Facebook says that all of the information that it shared stayed on the phone. It never went into Chinese servers. And they say they know this because they worked extremely closely with the company. They had a special engineering team working with them, and they actually were about to wind down this relationship. In fact, all of their hardware relationships have been winding down. They say that's because they made these contracts years ago when they were new to the mobile business, and they don't need as much help, so they don't need to be as close and work, you know, and continue to have these contracts with these companies.

MARTIN: So is Facebook basically saying there's really nothing to see here?

SYDELL: That's what they're saying. They're saying there's nothing to see here. Of course, I guess, it comes down to how much we trust the Chinese companies that they were following their contracts. And we are now hearing that Congress has some questions. So Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who leads the Commerce Committee, is demanding that Facebook provide them with details about these data partnerships. Also Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, Democrat of Virginia, also has concerns about this, citing the same report. And he says he's looking forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers.

MARTIN: Are we going to see Mark Zuckerberg up on Capitol Hill again answering these questions?

SYDELL: Well, that's a good question. I mean, part of the reason I think people are paying attention to this is because Mark Zuckerberg was just in Congress talking about another leak. In this case, Cambridge Analytica managed to get a lot of personal information through an app and a survey users took. So I think people are now concerned. And I should add for those who don't remember that a lot of that information might have been used to help the Trump campaign. We don't really know. So at this point, yes, it is possible he will be invited back to testify and fill in the gaps from the hardware.

MARTIN: Invited - that's such a nice word. Just come. Just come share your thoughts with us.

SYDELL: Just come on. Come share thoughts with us again. He may not like that idea, though. He didn't like coming last time so...

MARTIN: NPR's Laura Sydell for us this morning. Thanks so much, Laura.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.