Facebook faces new data firestorm

Facebook faces new data firestorm
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Facebook is under new scrutiny from lawmakers after revelations the social network had data-sharing agreements with device-makers, including a Chinese company that many officials believe is a national security threat.

The latest controversy touched off when The New York Times reported earlier this month that Facebook had been sharing more data with phone companies than it had previously disclosed. The uproar intensified when Facebook revealed that Huawei was among the companies that had partnerships for access to user information.

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Lawmakers and intelligence officials have been warning for years that Huawei and other Chinese tech firms are a national security threat due to their close ties to Beijing. A 2012 congressional report warned that if those companies gained a foothold in the U.S. market, the Chinese government could use their hardware to spy on Americans.

Both Huawei and Facebook insist the partnership didn't involve collecting and storing data, but lawmakers are now questioning whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was fully transparent with them when he was dragged before Congress to answer for the earlier Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

"I now have more questions than I've ever had," Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in an interview with The Hill.

"I don't know what he knew and what he withheld and what he didn't withhold and what kind of coaching he got — I can't comment on that. All I'm saying is, if he knew, I believe Mr. Zuckerberg should have shared that information with us," added Kennedy, who's emerged as a vocal critic of tech firms' data collection practices. "It just puts all of this in an entirely new light."

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) questioned Zuckerberg's testimony as well on Twitter after the report broke.

"Sure looks like Zuckerberg lied to Congress about whether users have 'complete control' over who sees our data on Facebook," he tweeted.

Lawmakers were quick to act.

The top members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and ranking Democrat Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), issued a bipartisan call for "full transparency from Facebook and the entire tech community" following the revelations.

And Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said his panel would send a letter to Facebook demanding more information.

Facebook, though is pushing back hard, arguing that the partnerships weren't about sharing data. Rather, Facebook says it was a way for the company to allow device-makers to design mobile "Facebook experiences" in the days before app stores streamlined the process. And the company dismissed criticism that Zuckerberg withheld anything from lawmakers about the partnerships, which Facebook is in the process of ending.

"Mark spent over 10 hours answering hundreds of questions put to him by lawmakers," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. "The arrangements in question had been highly visible for years — with many manufacturers advertising these features. But with fewer and fewer people relying on them, we proactively announced this spring we'd begin winding them down."

But the new controversy comes as Facebook is still under the microscope over prior revelations about its data practices. And that means many lawmakers are unwilling to give the company the benefit of the doubt.

The news also coincided with heightened scrutiny of Chinese firms like Huawei. Congress is trying to block President Trump from offering concessions to another company, ZTE, which has ties to the Chinese government, as the administration negotiates a trade deal with China.

The Facebook revelations have also prompted Congress to look at similar arrangements other tech giants have with Chinese companies. On Thursday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent letters to Google's parent company and Twitter with questions about their agreements with Chinese firms.

"In 2016, Google's services served more than a billion users," Warner wrote. "The possibility of Chinese vendors with documented ties to the Chinese Communist Party having access to Facebook's private API (and potentially Alphabet's) — particularly as China develops tools to harness individual-level data for surveillance and social control — raises serious national security concerns."

A Google spokesperson told The Hill in a statement, "We do not provide special access to Google user data as part of these agreements, and our agreements include privacy and security protections for user data."

But lawmakers' skepticism is proving hard to dispel.

The Times report said that Facebook had 60 such data partnerships over the last decade. And according to the report, some of the user data shared included relationship status, religion and even political views.

Walden, in an interview with Bloomberg TV this week, reiterated his call for more tech CEOs to come testify before his committee, saying Congress is unsatisfied with what it has heard from Facebook and the rest of the industry.

"Silicon Valley would be well served by the CEOs, other than when they're in a crisis situation like Facebook is now, to come and share with us in Congress what their strategies are, what their agreements are, what their recommendations are," Walden said.