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Apple slaps Facebook at WWDC

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On Thursday, Facebook was riding high, with its stock near an all-time peak and a group of angry shar
 
June 4 · Issue #150 · View online
The Interface
On Thursday, Facebook was riding high, with its stock near an all-time peak and a group of angry shareholders dismissed after a brief period of public comment at the company’s annual meeting. By the end of today, though, the company found itself attacked over data privacy issues by two powerful antagonists. 
The first blow hit Sunday, when the New York Times reported that Facebook had struck deals with 60 device makers to build first-party apps for their phones and tablets. This practice began before some device makers had app stores, and in some cases represented Facebook’s only chance at building a native app. The trouble is that those devices shared a lot of data with the device makers — including data about the device owners’ friends — and some of that data was stored on the manufacturers’ servers.
Facebook told the Times that data use was governed by “strict contracts,” which, given that Cambridge Analytica was also subject to a strict contract, isn’t all that reassuring. But neither the Times nor Facebook say any data had been misused as a result of the deals.
Still:
Facebook’s view that the device makers are not outsiders lets the partners go even further, The Times found: They can obtain data about a user’s Facebook friends, even those who have denied Facebook permission to share information with any third parties.
In interviews, several former Facebook software engineers and security experts said they were surprised at the ability to override sharing restrictions.
“It’s like having door locks installed, only to find out that the locksmith also gave keys to all of his friends so they can come in and rifle through your stuff without having to ask you for permission,” said Ashkan Soltani, a research and privacy consultant who formerly served as the F.T.C.’s chief technologist.
Facebook strenuously objected to basically every characterization in the Times’ story, to the point that it devoted an entire blog post to the subject last night from VP of partnerships / company heartthrob Ime Archibong. Archibong argues that the first-party apps function as they should, with data passing through the device makers’ hands but not being used for any unintended purpose:
These partners signed agreements that prevented people’s Facebook information from being used for any other purpose than to recreate Facebook-like experiences. Partners could not integrate the user’s Facebook features with their devices without the user’s permission. And our partnership and engineering teams approved the Facebook experiences these companies built. Contrary to claims by the New York Times, friends’ information, like photos, was only accessible on devices when people made a decision to share their information with those friends. We are not aware of any abuse by these companies.
This is very different from the public APIs used by third-party developers, like Aleksandr Kogan.
Several politicians tweeted their concerns anyway, including Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). Zeynep Tufekci had many questions. The anonymous official Facebook Twitter account, which has taken over Twitter customer support from Andrew Bosworth and Adam Mosseri, offered a number of polite interjections.
When it comes to journalism about data privacy, there’s no requirement that the journalists show evidence of harm. Often the potential for harm is enough — and given that many of these deals are still active, it seems to me that Facebook’s data relationships with third-party manufacturers are absolutely worthy of investigating. On the other hand, there’s no evidence of harm here — and so I wonder whether this story will have legs.
The practice – which may have occurred without users’ full knowledge – drew sharp rebukes from lawmakers on Monday, who said Facebook has misled them about the way it collects and swaps consumers’ data. And it could spark additional scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which is already investigating Facebook for a series of other recent, privacy mishaps.
“I think the more unauthorized sharing that comes out, the more the FTC is going to be inclined to impose a significant civil penalty on Facebook,” said David Vladeck, a former top official at the agency when it punished Facebook in 2011.
On the Hill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) said the new reports showed that Facebook “has failed to come clean with the American people about the extent, the scope and the scale, of data sharing. The secret agreements raise serious credibility issues about recent testimony.”
And just as Facebook was catching up to the possibility of a second line of FTC inquiry, Apple executives got up on stage at the Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose and slapped Facebook right in the mouth. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software, announced that the next version of Apple’s Safari browser would ask users’ permission before sharing their browsing history with a web site, as a means of preventing Facebook and other sites from tracking users’ travels around the web for advertising purposes.
He all but called out Facebook by name, saying: “We’ve all seen these like buttons and share buttons. Well it turns out, these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. So this year, we’re shutting that down.”
My colleague Russell Brandom has an excellent rundown of the changes:
 In technical terms, the change has to do with how Safari loads content, and how much information it gives to the site it’s loading. Browsers typically offer up your login token to any plug-in that asks for it, but the new Safari holds back, asking for specific permission before telling “share” buttons or comments sections who you are. That also applies to Facebook comments on third-party sites, the specific feature demoed by Federighi. Facebook was the company called out onstage, but it also has real consequences for Google, Facebook’s only real competitor in targeted ads.
There are other ways to track people on the web, but Safari takes aim at some of them, too, pulling back information on existing plug-ins, fonts, and other configurations. In Federighi’s terms, the result is to “make your Mac look like all the other Macs,” which makes it harder for advertisers to track you passively. It’s a major technique, and it will be a lot harder to pull off in the new Safari.
As Russell notes, this is a shot at Google as much as it is at Facebook. But it’s Facebook that Apple showed in every possible screen shot. And when it came time to demonstrate new features that can limit the amount of time you spend in an individual app, Instagram was the app Apple showed on screen. (You can also see it in this press release.)
To some extent I want to dismiss this as what Ben Thompson calls a “strategy credit”: “An uncomplicated decision that makes a company look good relative to other companies who face much more significant trade-offs.” Apple makes an obscene amount of money on hardware, and with its biggest competitors reliant on advertising revenue, it will always be happy to tout the evils of ads.
On the other hand … Apple’s rhetorical attacks on Facebook are escalating. An ex-Facebooker told me recently he hears that the feud feels increasingly personal to both companies.
In any case, Facebook had a hell of a Monday. 

Democracy
Facebook Tried to Rein In Fake Ads. It Fell Short in a California Race.
How The Alt-Right Manipulates The Internet’s Biggest Commenting Platform
WhatsApp is a black box for fake news. Verificado 2018 is making real progress fixing that.
Apple lets Telegram iOS update go through following Russia ban debacle
Elsewhere
Facebook photo-scanning lawsuit could cost it billions
For Developers, Facebook’s Messenger Shows Signs of Life
Why Snap Should Tap Apple or Tencent for Cash
Snap Hires Finance VP From Its Favorite Recruiting Spot: Amazon
Twitter Restructures Content Group, Disbands Live-Video Team in Reorg
Launches
Apple's new 'digital wellbeing' tools aim to help reduce screen time
Apple’s Memoji lets you create an Animoji of yourself
Houseparty brings its group video chat app to Mac
Takes
Facebook Again Botches a Data Crisis
Six or Seven Things Social Media Can Do For Democracy
20 Ideas For Facebook to ‘Make Online Dating Great Again’
And finally ...
Lil Tay has disappeared from Instagram and YouTube
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? WWDC highlights? casey@theverge.com
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