Facebook Gave Chinese Tech Firms Access To User Data

Facebook has data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies, including a manufacturing giant that has a close relationship with China’s government, the social media company said recently.

The agreements, which date to at least 2010, gave private access to some user data to Huawei, a telecommunications equipment company that has been flagged by American intelligence officials as a national security threat, as well as to Lenovo, Oppo and TCL.

The four partnerships remain in effect, but Facebook officials said in an interview that the company would wind down the Huawei deal in a week.

Facebook gave access to the Chinese device makers along with other manufacturers, including Amazon, Apple, BlackBerry and Samsung, whose agreements were disclosed by The New York times. 

The deals were part of an effort to push more mobile users onto the social network starting in 2007, before stand-alone Facebook apps worked well on phones. The agreements allowed device makers to offer some Facebook features, such as address books, “like” buttons and status updates.

Facebook officials said the agreements with the Chinese companies allowed them access similar to what was offered to BlackBerry, which could retrieve detailed information on both device users and all of their friends, including religious and political leanings, work and education history and relationship status.

Huawei used its private access to feed a “social phone” app that let users view messages and social media accounts in one place, according to the officials.

Facebook representatives said the data shared with Huawei stayed on its phones, not the company’s servers.
Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who leads the Commerce Committee, has demanded that Facebook provide Congress with details about its data partnerships. “Facebook is learning hard lessons that meaningful transparency is a high standard to meet,” Mr. Thune said.

His committee also oversees the Federal Trade Commission, which is investigating Facebook to determine whether the company’s data policies violate a 2011 consent decree with the commission. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia pointed out that concerns about Huawei were not new, citing a 2012 congressional report on the “close relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and equipment makers like Huawei.”

“I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers,” said Mr. Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.

“All Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo and TCL were controlled from the get-go, and Facebook approved everything that was built,” said Francisco Varela, a Facebook vice president.

“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.”

Banned in China since 2009, Facebook in recent years has quietly sought to re-establish itself there. The company’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has tried to cultivate a relationship with China’s president, Xi Jinping, and put in an appearance at one of the country’s top universities.

Last year, Facebook released a photo-sharing app in China that was a near replica of its Moments app, but did not put its name on it. And the company has worked on a tool that allowed targeted censorship, prompting some employees to quit over the project.

Still, Facebook has struggled to gain momentum, and in January an executive in charge of courting China’s government left after spending three years on a charm campaign to get the social media service back in the country.

Huawei, one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world, is a point of national pride for China and is at the vanguard of the country’s efforts to expand its influence abroad. The company was the recipient of billions of dollars in lines of credit from China’s state-owned policy banks, helping to fuel its overseas expansion in Africa, Europe and Latin America. Its founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a former engineer in the People’s Liberation Army.

The United States government has long regarded the company with suspicion, and lawmakers have recommended that American carriers avoid buying the network gear it makes. In January, AT&T walked away from a deal to sell a new Huawei smartphone, the Mate 10.

United States officials are investigating whether Huawei broke American trade controls by dealing with Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. The Trump administration has taken aim at Huawei and its rival ZTE in recent weeks, and in April the Federal Communications Commission advanced a plan to bar federally subsidised telecom companies from using suppliers that are considered national security threats.

Facebook has not entered into a data-sharing agreement with ZTE, officials at the social network said.
TCL, a consumer electronics firm, has accused the Trump administration of bias against Chinese companies and last June dropped a bid to buy a San Diego-based company that makes routers and other hardware.

Lenovo, a maker of computers and other devices, recently shelved ambitions to acquire BlackBerry after the Canadian government signaled that such a deal could compromise national security.

New York Times

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