With Huawei on the radar for spying on behalf of the Chinese government, it is facing an international boycott and its 5G equipment has been banned in several nations. In the U.S., a more serious security breach occurred when Facebook entered into an agreement with Huawei that gave the Chinese company access to user data. And now, Facebook is under criminal investigation.
Sharing data with Huawei
In July last year, Facebook’s data sharing deal with Huawei came to be public knowledge. According to reports, an agreement between the two companies was signed sometime before 2010 and gave Huawei special access to Facebook user data. It was not clear how Huawei was using the data it collected.
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“This could be a very big problem. If @Facebook granted Huawei special access to social data of Americans, this might as well have given it directly to the government of #China,” Senator Marco Rubio said in a tweet. According to Facebook, their deal with Huawei was similar to its partnership with BlackBerry in which the device maker could access personal information like the religion, political leaning, and relationship status of the user. This is a dangerous admission.
If Huawei were successful in collecting, storing, and transmitting such data to its servers back in China, it would essentially mean that the Chinese government has access to American Facebook users’ political preferences. The Chinese regime could use this information to run campaigns on Facebook through covert channels to influence American voters. Realizing that the agreement could turn out to be a major scandal, Facebook tried to downplay the issue.
“All Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, OPPO, and TCL were controlled from the get-go — and Facebook approved everything that was built… Given the interest from Congress, we wanted to make clear that all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei’s servers,” Francisco Varela, Facebook vice president, said in a statement (Business Insider).
It was not just Huawei with which Facebook had such a data sharing agreement. Almost 150 companies, including biggies like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, etc. were allowed access to data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. Other China-based companies that benefited from such deals include OPPO, TCL, and Lenovo. Experts say that this is a clear case of breach of privacy.
“It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission,” Ashkan Soltani, a research and privacy consultant who formerly served as the Federal Trade Commission’s chief technologist, said to The New York Times.
Facebook is currently under criminal investigation for the data deals it made with the companies. In New York, a grand jury subpoenaed records from two smartphone makers who had entered into such agreements with Facebook. The social media company stated that it is cooperating with the investigators.
Sentiment against the company’s data-sharing deals is clearly negative, with lawmakers raising questions about Facebook’s trustworthiness. “How can consumers have control over their data when Facebook does not have control over the data?” Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said in a statement (Daily Mail).
If Facebook is found guilty, the tech company is likely to face huge fines since the lawmakers will be keen to convey the idea that the privacy of citizens is of paramount importance.