MENLO PARK – According to documents seen by The Intercept, Social network kingpin Facebook supplied data on location, interests, and friend pairings to major cell phone carriers and manufacturers without obtaining user permission – data that went far beyond mere shopping habits.
User activity on Facebook, along with Instagram and Facebook Messenger, was fair game for data mining, and the platform encouraged and even assisted over 100 global telecom companies to use customers’ data for purposes including evaluating their creditworthiness, according to documents seen by the Intercept, which suggest the program is still going on.
Facebook data scientists working on its “Actionable Insights” program developed an algorithm to exclude customers with poor credit history from future promotions by a client, determining creditworthiness through users’ online behavior, according to the document, which presented this case study as an example of what clients could achieve through the program.
Such an algorithm, replicated across the platform through a targeting mechanism called “lookalike audiences” that lumps together users who share attributes, could allow Actionable Insights clients to negatively “profile” users, denying them services based on their failure to fulfill metrics they didn’t even know existed, based on behavior they didn’t know was being surveilled.
How Actionable Insights Assisted
Actionable Insights was announced in August, at about the same time Facebook’s secretive and possibly illegal data-sharing partnerships with other tech companies were being exposed – and while Facebook was insisting such non-consenting data-sharing was wholly in the company’s past.
Like the “trusted partnerships” program, Actionable Insights is ostensibly free, allowing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to continue to claim that Facebook doesn’t “sell users’ data” – but access was provided with the understanding that companies would purchase Facebook ads, now expertly targeted thanks to the user data they could access.
The program serves up information on demographics, location and personal interests in addition to functional data like use of WiFi, cell networks and device information.
According to the leaked document, the data is “aggregated and anonymized;” while a Facebook spokesperson told the Intercept that the collection of location data stopped at the zip code level, any phone with location turned on pinpoints its owner’s whereabouts quite precisely, and researchers have demonstrated that a record of a person’s movements over the course of a month can reliably identify that person no matter how “anonymized” they are.
Given that studies have already shown Facebook’s ad delivery algorithms are racially biased – the company has paid out at least $5 million to settle multiple lawsuits regarding ad discrimination in employment, credit and housing ads – the addition of an unaccountable behavioral metric is ripe for abuse.
Facebook insists it does not perform creditworthiness evaluations, though the company notably refused to deny it supplied data to others who performed the checks, a distinction that may not exempt it from relevant laws, according to a legal scholar who spoke with the Intercept.
The social platform also claimed that partners were only permitted to use the data for “internal” purposes. This was ostensibly ineffective in the past – just ask now-defunct Cambridge Analytica.