Facebook says HUD requested access to sensitive user data

The request was made as part of an investigation into housing discrimination on the social media platform.

HUD reportedly wanted access to sensitive Facebook user data, according to company spokespeople. (Photo credit: Chesnot/Getty Images)
HUD reportedly wanted access to sensitive Facebook user data, according to company spokespeople. (Photo credit: Chesnot/Getty Images)

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wanted access to sensitive Facebook user data as part of a recent decision to charge the social media giant with housing discrimination, Facebook claimed this week.

That data included things like users’ location information, content they viewed, the features they used, or information about other people with whom the user had interacted.

On Thursday, HUD accused Facebook of violating the Fair Housing Act by allowing ads on its platform which certain users were excluded from seeing.

According to HUD, which first began investigating the issue under the Obama administration, Facebook’s ad targeting systems made it impossible for certain disadvantaged communities — including Hispanics, people with disabilities, or those with young families — to view certain housing ads. The company provided advertisers with a system by which they could define what type of users they wanted the ad to reach, as well as a toggle box that enabled them to, among other things, limit people who did not speak a certain language, or who were from a certain area, which the advertiser could designate with a red line.


“Using a computer to limit a persons’ housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement this week.

The department filed its initial complaint on the matter in August 2018.

Facebook officials said they were surprised by HUD’s decision on Thursday because the company had already taken significant steps to address the issue and was working with the department itself. They suggested that discussions became bumpy after HUD requested access to user data, without the required safeguards to ensure privacy.

“While we were eager to find a solution, HUD insisted on access to sensitive information—like user data—without adequate safeguards,” a spokesman said in a statement. “We’re disappointed by today’s developments, but we’ll continue working with civil rights experts on these issues.”

A HUD spokesperson declined to comment on Facebook’s allegation, citing ongoing discussions with the company and the legal restrictions surrounding the issue.


Last week, the company announced, as part of a settlement with advocacy groups, that it had decided to remove age, gender, and zip code targeting from ads that dealt with housing, employment, and credit. The company also added that it would build a tool so that users themselves could search for housing ads across the United States.

“Housing, employment and credit ads are crucial to helping people buy new homes, start great careers, and gain access to credit,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, wrote in a blog post. “They should never be used to exclude or harm people.”

“Getting this right is deeply important to me and all of us at Facebook because inclusivity is a core value for our company,” she added.

Morgan Williams, general counsel to the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), one of groups that sued Facebook, said HUD’s decision to charge the social media company this week reflected the same concerns NFHA had raised in its suit, which included “the extent to which Facebook has used specific tools that have enabled discrimination.”

However, Williams said, HUD had its own issues to worry about.

“We applaud HUD for taking strong stance on these issues, however this HUD administration has been woefully deficient in its stated obligation to engage in robust enforcement of the FHA,” he told ThinkProgress. “This is the one and only complaint filed by Secretary Carson and underscores the lack of any housing enforcement.”


Ultimately, he said, both sides had their flaws. “HUD lacks the resources to truly investigate this in a sophisticated fashion and that extends to analyzing data,” he said, “but Facebook is last person to point finger towards for handling private data.”