For the past several years, Facebook has been trying to convince users and authorities that it will take user data security and privacy more seriously. But then something happens that reminds everyone why they never trusted Facebook in the first place, and everything it says should be taken with a grain of salt.
Take the latest revelations about the company’s handling of user data from a few years ago. Emails that were just made public show that Facebook decided to stop providing companies it perceived as potential rivals access to user data, and then disguised it as a move that would improve user privacy on the network.
Court filings that Facebook fought to keep secret reveal that Facebook started cutting access to user data for app developers back in 2012 while presenting it as a plan to enhance as user privacy Reuters reports. The strategy was referred by some executives in internal emails as the “Switcharoo Plan.”
The documents, nearly 7,000 pages of company emails and executive documents, come from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Six4Tree, a developer of a bikini photo app that lost access to Facebook user data after the changes were announced in 2014 and implemented a year later. The company says that Facebook behaved in an anti-competitive manner and misrepresented the privacy policies to both the public and developers.
Facebook said back in 2015 that the company conducted research on user sentiment about Facebook apps and decided on policies that would increase confidence in data privacy. Facebook now says the case is baseless, and a spokesperson told Reuters that the documents were “taken out of context by someone with an agenda against Facebook,” and shared with the public “with total disregard for US law.”
The new emails reveal that executives were discussing internally ways of cutting access to data to potential competitors at a time when the company was claiming that it was open and neutral:
One executive, writing in 2013, described dividing apps into “three buckets: existing competitors, possible future competitors, [or] developers that we have alignment with on business models” as part of the project to restrict access to user data, dubbed ‘PS12N’.
Those in the last category were able to regain access by agreeing to make mobile advertising purchases or provide reciprocal user data to Facebook under “Private Extended API Agreements,” according to the emails.
Thousands of developers lost access to data initially, and that’s why Facebook went, saying that it was linked to a Facebook login system update, which gave people more control over their privacy. The narrative of the announcement “will focus on quality and the user experience which will potentially provide a good umbrella to fold in some of the API deprecations,” one executive said at the time.
A different person invited colleagues in February 2014 to review the Switcharoo Plan, saying that it was a good compromise that would let them “tell a story that makes sense.” The same executive was apparently concerned “around the perception that we can’t hold our story together” just a month earlier.