Facebook in EU dock over data privacy

04 Jan 2018

Recently, I got back in touch with a group of friends I haven’t contacted in decades. But there were other people within that group for whom I had no contact info. I emailed our mutual friends for contact details.

These friends are hardly teenagers-many have teenage children. Yet all of them said, “oh, I only contact these other friends through Facebook.”

I find it surprising that anyone my age has let email slip away as a communications medium. It’s not like everyone’s on Facebook-many people avoid the social media monolith because of data privacy concerns. Facebook may be easy to use but I’m not on it and never will be.

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When it comes to social media and messaging apps, choosing them solely based on ease-of-use is a dangerous philosophy. It ignores the maxim of data privacy: the more convenient online processes are, the less secure they are.

And recently, there have been repercussions.

EU nation slams Facebook, demands cash

In mid-September, Spain’s AEPD (Agencia Española de Protección de Datos) authority fined Facebook 1.2 million ($1.44 million) for allegedly collecting personal information from users in Spain that could be used for advertising.

According to Reuters, the AEPD said it found three cases in which Facebook had collected details such as the gender, religious beliefs, personal tastes and browsing history of its millions of Spanish users without informing them how such information would be used. “Facebook’s privacy policy contains generic and unclear terms,”the authority said in a statement. “The social network uses specifically protected data for advertising, among other purposes, without obtaining users’ express consent as data protection law demands, a serious infringement.”

Perhaps the gargantuan social network should pay heed to the Spanish data privacy authority’s ruling. Here’s a government body with the legal clout to level punitive financial measures stating that a “privacy policy contains generic and unclear terms.”

And it’s not the only one to slap Facebook with a fine this year.

Facebook says: WhatsApp?

In May, “Facebook [was] fined 110 million [$132m] by the EU for providing misleading information about its 2014 takeover of WhatsApp,”said an article in The Guardian. “The European commission said it had imposed a ‘proportionate’ fine on the technology company to send a clear signal that all firms must comply with EU competition rules. When Facebook took over the WhatsApp messaging service in 2014, it told the commission it would not be able to match user accounts on both platforms, but went on to do exactly that.”

The commission found that Facebook staff knew in 2014 that it was technically possible to link WhatsApp phone numbers with Facebook users’ identities, contrary to their public statements about the merger, said The Guardian.

Facebook’s claim that they “would not be able to match user accounts on both platforms”boggles the mind. When they acquired WhatsApp, the general consensus was that Facebook wanted the phone numbers of WhatsApp users and their phonebook contacts. “There was never any doubt that Facebook’s [2014] acquisition of WhatsApp was about gaining users before profits,”wrote The New York Times at the time of the deal.

Never any doubt

Is there even a question about Facebook’s motivation for buying WhatsApp? If, as many have suggested, data is the new hot commodity, then what flows in and out of our smartphones-via wi-fi or cellular channels-is valuable.

But so too is the importance of keeping it private. Hong Kong has its PDPO (Personal Data Privacy Ordinance), but thus far it’s EU countries and the EU itself that have penalized Zuckerberg’s firm for data privacy violations.

2018 should be an interesting year as this game of cat-and-mouse continues to play out.

This article first appeared in Telecom Asia Vision 2018

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