Facebook under fire over claims it knows when users are having their periods

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Facebook under fire over claims it knows when users are having their periods

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Updated

February 24, 2019 13:11:29

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered two state agencies to investigate a media report that Facebook may be accessing far more personal information than previously known from smartphone users, including health and other sensitive data.

Key points:

  • Several apps share sensitive user data including weight, blood pressure and ovulation status with Facebook, the WSJ reported
  • NY Governor Andrew Cuomo called the practice an “outrageous abuse of privacy”
  • Facebook said in a statement it would assist New York officials in their probe

The directive to New York’s Department of State and Department of Financial Services (DFS) came after the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) said testing showed Facebook collected personal information from other apps on users’ smartphones within seconds of them entering it.

The WSJ reported that several apps shared sensitive user data including weight, blood pressure and ovulation status with Facebook.

Flo Health Inc’s Flo Period and Ovulation tracker app told Facebook when a user was having her period, and Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor sent a user’s heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded, the WSJ reported.

The report said in some cases Facebook could access the data even when the user was not signed into Facebook or did not have a Facebook account.

Flo Health said in an emailed statement that using analytical systems was a “common practice” for all app developers and that it used Facebook analytics for “internal analytics purposes only”.

But the company plans to audit its analytics tools to be “as proactive as possible” on privacy concerns.

How did it work?

  • An analytics tool called “App Events” allows app developers to record user activity and report it back to Facebook
  • Facebook’s terms instruct app developers not to send such sensitive information
  • But Facebook appeared to be accepting such data without telling the developers to stop
  • Developers are able to use such data to target their own users while on Facebook

In a statement, Mr Cuomo called the practice an “outrageous abuse of privacy”.

He also called on the relevant federal regulators to become involved.

Facebook said in a statement it would assist New York officials in their probe, but noted that the WSJ’s report focused on how other apps used people’s data to create ads.

“As [the WSJ] reported, we require the other app developers to be clear with their users about the information they are sharing with us, and we prohibit app developers from sending us sensitive data,” the company said.

“We also take steps to detect and remove data that should not be shared with us.”

Facebook facing slew of privacy lawsuits

Shares in Facebook took a short-lived hit after the newspaper report was published, but closed up 1.2 per cent.

In late January, Mr Cuomo and New York Attorney-General Letitia James announced an investigation into Apple Inc’s failure to warn consumers about a FaceTime bug that let people listen in to conversations even before a video call request was accepted.

Facebook is facing a slew of lawsuits and regulatory inquiries over privacy issues, including a US Federal Trade Commission investigation into disclosures it inappropriately shared information belonging to 87 million users with British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

New York’s financial services department does not traditionally supervise social media companies directly, but has waded into digital privacy in the financial sector and could have oversight of some app providers that send user data to Facebook.

In March, it is slated to implement the country’s first cybersecurity rules governing state-regulated financial institutions such as banks, insurers and credit monitors.

Last month, DFS said life insurers could use social media posts in underwriting policies, so long as they did not discriminate based on race, colour, national origin, sexual orientation or other protected classes.

Reuters/AP

Topics:

law-crime-and-justice,

information-and-communication,

internet-culture,

social-media,

united-states

First posted

February 24, 2019 12:13:41

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