India’s biggest phone company Bharti Airtel and music streaming app Saavn were among select partners that received special exemptions from Facebook to obtain user data even after it discontinued access in 2015, the social media giant disclosed to the US Congress last week.
These firms were allowed access to data following Facebook’s partnerships with app developers and software makers to integrate “Facebook and Facebook features” onto those companies’ devices and products. Bharti Airtel was among 52 companies authorised to use Facebook user data to create such services, which allowed the social media giant to increase its reach among users.
The other companies include Microsoft, Apple, Samsung and Blackberry. Bharti Airtel said its access to the data ended in 2013.
Facebook offered a one-time extension beyond May 2015 to Saavn, in which Reliance Industries took a stake this year, to comply with “restricted API (application programming interface) access” after it imposed restrictions following the alleged misuse of data by researcher Aleksander Kogan. Saavn was merged with the Reliance-owned Jio Music platform in March.
Earlier this year, Facebook accused voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica of getting the physiological profiles of 50 million people from Kogan, who is said to have violated its data policies by sharing data from his personality prediction app. Kogan’s this is your digital life app harvested data not only from participating individuals but also from everyone in their friends list. The data is suspected to have been used to influence elections in the US.
Since then, apps launched after April 30, 2014, were required to use more restrictive platform APIs.
Facebook told Congress in its submission that it was still sharing information of users’ friends with Saavn and 60 other app developers. Saavn and others were given “less than six months beyond May 2015 to come into compliance”.
“Such access to information about an app user’s friends required not only the consent of the app user, but also required that the friends whose data would be accessed have their own privacy settings set to permit such access by third-party apps,” Facebook said.
On Tuesday, Facebook said it didn’t have more details to share. Bharti Airtel said that it values the privacy of users and has used such data only for internal purposes.
“The matter pertains to the year 2010 when Airtel was granted access to data by Facebook as an app developer,” a Bharti Airtel spokesperson said. “The project ended in 2013 and so did the access to the data. We confirm that the data was used only for our internal purposes. We take data privacy extremely seriously and follow a zero-tolerance policy on the same.”
Saavn did not respond to queries. Facebook is also investigating every app that had access to large amounts of information before it changed its policies in 2014. So far it has suspended 200 apps of the thousands it investigated and will ban them if it finds evidence of wrongdoing.
“If we identify misuses of data, we’ll take immediate action, including banning the app from our platform and pursuing legal action if appropriate,” it told Congress.