Tuesday, the New York Times published another bombshell report detailing the ways in which Facebook gave many of Silicon Valley’s giants privileged access to user profiles and data, often without alerting users.
This means that Netflix and Spotify were able to read and send private messages from user profiles, Microsoft’s Bing was able to see the names of all of a user’s Facebook friends without consent, Amazon was able to see friend lists and friend contact information, and Apple was able to grab Facebook data from iPhones without asking for consent. The Times’s reporting was based on interviews with more than 60 people with knowledge of the agreements, and 270 pages of internal Facebook documents that detailed the arrangements.
Facebook gave these companies privileged access, and, in some cases, those companies gave data back to Facebook that it could use for its own products. For instance, Amazon and Yahoo gave Facebook data that it used for its controversial, creepy, and poorly-understood “People You May Know” friend-suggestion tool. Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill, who has been reporting on “People You may Know” for years, speculated that, in return, Amazon may have used the information that Facebook sent to it to identify, for example, book reviews that were written by friends of the author (Amazon declined to comment to Gizmodo about how it used Facebook data.)
Facebook’s deals with different companies varied, but taken together, they show that Silicon Valley’s tech giants treat their customers’ personal data like currency—or maybe like Pokémon or baseball cards—something to be traded back and forth for mutual gain. The documents “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 wrote.
Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have been publicly flogged all year for the way the social network has handled user data and security, often by some of the companies that have also benefited from privileged access to its data. We don’t traditionally think of Microsoft, Netflix, and Spotify as privacy offenders, but they have helped create and benefit from a business model in which data is a commodity to be traded and leveraged for profit.
And so the New York Times report is damning not just for Facebook, but for the entire American tech sector. It shows once again that Silicon Valley’s chosen business model—one that is almost uniformly shared by tech giants—is not one that is predicated on selling products to consumers, it’s one that is based on selling consumers to businesses. The whole industry is colluding to trade your personal data in order to benefit its bottom line.