Hard Questions: Should People Be Able to Share Their Facebook Information with Other Apps?

Hard Questions is a series from Facebook that addresses the impact of our products on society.

By David Baser, Director of Product Management

Mobile phones have become our digital backpacks. They hold our address books, maps, to do lists, photos and increasingly, our wallets. And in today’s connected world, we often share this information with apps and online services without a second thought.

This has obvious benefits. We can take a picture on our iPhone and quickly share it to Instagram or Snapchat or Twitter. We can upload our Gmail contacts to Paperless Post and invite friends to a party. And we can sync our Fitbit with a Nike app to track our health. These options make our lives easier and they’re made possible by an ecosystem of platforms, including the Facebook Platform, that let us share our information with other apps and services directly. This data portability is also powered by tools like Facebook’s Download Your Information, which lets you to create a copy of your information on our platform to then store on your computer or upload to another service.

Some of the world’s most popular apps have been built on the Facebook Platform — it’s helped great ideas get off the ground and simplified and streamlined people’s digital lives. But we know that this flow of information has the potential for abuse. Bad actors can gather information from people and use it in ways that they aren’t aware of and didn’t agree too, like selling personal data to marketers. Facebook has clear policies against this, but as we saw with the Cambridge Analytica situation, bad actors are more than willing to ignore these policies in pursuit of their own objectives.

Some argue that the best response to Cambridge Analytica would be to lock Facebook down completely so apps can’t get access to this kind of information. But limiting people’s ability to share information would erase the conveniences we enjoy. After all, the ability to share your contacts with Venmo or Spotify, or move your digital profile en masse between services with tools like Download Your Information, has tremendous value. And, at the end of the day, you should be able to move your information where you want.

We need to find the right balance, giving people control over data sharing and preventing abuse without hampering people’s experiences or hindering innovation.

With this in mind, we’ve taken steps to restrict access to our platform to better guard against abuse. In 2014, we announced that we were changing our platform to dramatically limit the data apps could access. And we’ve accelerated this work in recent months, restricting the information apps can get when you log in with Facebook and authorize them. Now, unless an app has gone through a full review, it can only request your name, profile photo and email address — much less information than when you download their app directly to your phone. We’ve also removed the ability for a developer to request additional private data from people if it appears they have not used the app in the last three months.

These changes push us in the right direction but protecting people’s information is never-ending work. And the entire tech industry must work together, since both sides of a data-sharing handshake need to be private. Nearly every day, news comes out from a different company about personal data that got into the wrong hands. Even if we’re all taking steps to shore up our privacy protections, we won’t find the answers in a silo. Companies are connected — and our technology ecosystem can’t be reversed — so we need to work together on standards and best practices to make data portability a reality while also prioritizing people’s privacy and security.

In this spirit, we teamed up with Google, Microsoft and Twitter last week on a new project aimed at establishing a common way for people to transfer their information into and out of online services. We’ll continue to share more about how we’re working to strike this balance and will also look to outside experts with different views on the future of data portability.

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