As part of an ongoing investigation into Facebook’s treatment of user privacy, earlier this week lawmakers in the UK published hundreds of previously-sealed emails from the company to third-party developers, apparently revealing that Facebook were wiling to sacrifice user privacy to ensure corporate growth.
The documents, which date back to 2012, were seized from the founder of a former app development company known as Six4Three. These had previously been collected by the company’s legal team as part of a lawsuit around claims that Facebook entered into agreements with third-party apps that included access to user data—only to cut off their access to that data later on.
They appear to show that Facebook’s central concern during this period was with its market growth, and that it was willing to sacrifice the privacy of its users to ensure a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
According to a note by Damian Collins MP, Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, one of the Select Committees of the British House of Commons that examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport:
Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.
In addition, with regards to an update to the Android version of the Facebook app, he wrote:
Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
In response, Facebook claimed that the documents were shown without context and in that case were misleading. In a statement, the company said:
Like any business, we had many internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: We’ve never sold people’s data.
Coming at the end of a year that has included the Cambridge Analytica revelations among a range of other privacy-related scandals, the release of these documents is likely to do little to sway public opinion in the favour of Facebook.