Facebook Admits It Gave Netflix, Spotify Special Access to User Messages

Social network says it only gave access to messages after users had consented by logging in with a partner’s app

Facebook admitted it gave major tech platforms like Spotify and Netflix access to millions of private user messages in a blog post late on Tuesday, confirming key details from an illuminating report from The New York Times.

The Times reported Tuesday evening that Facebook gave privileged access to user messages, allowing companies like Spotify and Netflix to read, write or delete conversations on the social network. Facebook, in its response, said it only allowed partner companies to view private messages once users had signed into Facebook using the partner’s app — granting them permission to their messages in the process.

“Did partners get access to messages? Yes. But people had to explicitly sign in to Facebook first to use a partner’s messaging feature,” Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, director of developer platforms and programs at Facebook, wrote in the blog post.

“Take Spotify for example. After signing in to your Facebook account in Spotify’s desktop app, you could then send and receive messages without ever leaving the app. Our API provided partners with access to the person’s messages in order to power this type of feature.”

Special access wasn’t reserved for a select few companies: Facebook shared private information with more than 100 companies, according to the NYT. Amazon, for instance, was able to grab user contact information, as well as Chinese tech giant Huawei — viewed with scrutiny by the U.S. intelligence community for its cozy relationship with the Chinese government — to gain “deeper insights” into user relationships, according to the report. Most of the clandestine deals discontinued by 2017, although some still remain active.

Spotify, in a statement to TheWrap, said the company had “no evidence that Spotify ever accessed” private Facebook messages.

“Spotify’s integration with Facebook has always been about sharing and discovering music and podcasts. Spotify cannot read users’ private Facebook inbox messages across any of our current integrations,” a Spotify spokesperson told TheWrap. “Previously, when users shared music from Spotify, they could add on text that was visible to Spotify. This has since been discontinued.”

Papamiltiadis wrote that “none” of Facebook’s partnerships violated its 2012 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, which had argued the company misled users into sharing more information than they believed. The special access, according to Papamiltiadis, was granted merely to help connect users.

“To put it simply, this work was about helping people do two things,” Papamiltiadis said. “First, people could access their Facebook accounts or specific Facebook features on devices and platforms built by other companies like Apple, Amazon, Blackberry and Yahoo. These are known as integration partners.”

He continued: “Second, people could have more social experiences – like seeing recommendations from their Facebook friends – on other popular apps and websites, like Netflix, The New York Times, Pandora and Spotify.”

In a statement provided to TheWrap, Netflix said it discontinued this particular Facebook partnership three years ago, and that it never accessed users’ private messages in any way.

“Over the years we have tried various ways to make Netflix more social. One example of this was a feature we launched in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger,” the statement said. “It was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015. At no time did we access people’s private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so.”

Amazon, in a statement to TheWrap, said it used its access to better “sync” Facebook users with its products.

“Amazon uses APIs [application program interface] provided by Facebook in order to enable Facebook experiences for our products,” an Amazon spokesperson told TheWrap in a statement. “For example, giving customers the option to sync Facebook contacts on an Amazon Tablet. We use information only in accordance with our privacy policy.”

Facebook shares dropped about 1.9 percent in early trading on Wednesday, hitting $141 per share.