During Wednesday’s Senate social media hearing with higher-ups from Facebook and Twitter, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) honed in on one topic that has generated significant backlash: Facebook’s data-sharing agreements with some 60 different companies.
The program, highlighted by the New York Times earlier this summer, was launched before Facebook had developed its own mobile app, allowing smartphone manufacturers to provide a handful of Facebook features on their phones. Dating to at least 2010, the program included companies like Apple, Samsung, Amazon, and HTC. But the agreement also included a handful of Chinese companies — such as Huawei, China’s largest telecom producer, which received “private access to some user data” from Facebook.
American officials routinely point to Huawei as a potential national security threat due to its close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Intelligence officials have strongly cautioned Americans against purchasing Huawei phones, and Huawei, which was founded by a member of the CCP and former engineer with China’s People’s Liberation Army, was the subject of a 2012 Congressional report examining the company’s ties with the CCP. Congress has also barred the Pentagon from purchasing any Huawei equipment.
On Wednesday, though, Wyden highlighted the fact that Facebook had “shared the personal information of Americans” with Huawei — a relationship that, as a Facebook spokesperson told ThinkProgress, has now officially ended.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) June 6, 2018
In a series of questions with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Wyden, requesting a yes-or-no answer, asked whether Facebook would provide more information to the public about Facebook’s partnerships moving forward — including its relationship with Huawei. But Sandberg ducked the question, and wouldn’t offer a time frame for when the information may be released.
Wyden: Let me turn now to a question based on a lot of analysis my office has done, and you all have talked to us about it. We have reviewed Facebook privacy audits required by the 2011 consent agreement after your company was found to use unfair and deceptive practices. One section of the audits deals with how Facebook shared the personal information of Americans with smartphone manufacturers. These include the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE. I found portions of this audit very troubling, and the findings could affect many Americans. I believe, Ms. Sandberg, the American people deserve to see this information. Will you commit this morning to making public the portion of your audits that relate to Facebook’s partnerships with smartphone manufacturers?
Sandberg: Senator, I really appreciate the question and the chance to clarify the issue, because it’s really important. With regards to the audits, our third-party auditor PwC does audits on a rolling basis every two years, but they’re continual. They’re given to us. We have shared them with the [Federal Trade Commission] voluntarily, and we will continue to do that. I can’t commit right in this moment to making that public because a lot of that has sensitive information which could help people game the system, but we can certainly work with you to see what disclosures will be prudent.
Wyden: Let’s do this, because that’s a constructive answer and I’ve got other things I’ve got to cover — I’m just going to assume you will work with this. We understand the question of redaction on sensitive national security matters. Can you get back to me within a week with respect to how Facebook will handle what I think is troubling information?
Sandberg: We’re going to get back to you as quickly as possible. We can definitely prioritize this request, so we’ll do it as fast as we can depending on the volume of requests everyone has.
While Sandberg didn’t specify when the company could share more information about its ties to Huawei, a Facebook representative confirmed to ThinkProgress that the relationship with Huawei is no longer in effect. “Huawei was definitely shut down,” the spokesperson said. (A Wyden aide told ThinkProgress that Wyden misspoke when he included ZTE, an equally problematic Chinese firm, in his question.)
Congressional officials, as Bloomberg reported, “chastised” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg last June “for keeping silent” about the partnerships, especially on those with Chinese companies. A Facebook spokesperson said at the time that the relationships “didn’t need to be disclosed because they were already public, announced by Huawei at least twice in 2011.” Facebook added that the data Huawei accessed remained on Huawei phones, not on Huawei’s servers.
The Facebook representative also disputed the notion that the agreement with Huawei was a “data-sharing” partnership. “They’re not about sharing data — they’re about enabling other companies to build Facebook-like experiences,” the spokesperson told ThinkProgress. Outlets like Bloomberg, CNN, The Verge, and The New York Times described the relationship as a “data-sharing” partnership.
Wednesday’s back-and-forth highlighted Facebook’s myriad issues regarding its data-sharing policies, which have been at the heart of backlash against the company throughout the summer. It also comes on the heels of the previous Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which tens of millions of Facebook users had their data unknowingly accessed.
Huawei, as it is, isn’t the only Chinese telecom recently in hot water for espionage allegations in the U.S. The aforementioned ZTE has also been at the heart of ongoing sanctions and trade disputes between the U.S. and China. Earlier this summer, President Donald Trump announced that he was “working together” with Chinese President Xi Jinping to lift U.S. sanctions on the company. (The sanctions had been in place due to ZTE shipping goods to Iran and North Korea.)
President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2018
The sanctions were lifted soon thereafter, with ZTE paying a $1.4 billion fine alongside. Trump’s push to lift the sanctions happened to coincide with revelations that an Indonesian theme park, backed by Chinese government financing, would feature a Trump-branded hotel and golf course.
The decision to lift sanctions on ZTE was met with wide criticism — including from Wyden, who said that the “Trump administration is giving ZTE and China the green light to spy on Americans.”