Facebook has data-sharing partnerships with at least four Chinese electronics companies. The contracts date back as far as 2010 and each relationship gives private access to some of the social media giant’s user data. Those in which the sensitive information is shared include Lenovo, Oppo, and TCL, as well as Huawei, a telecommunications equipment firm that has been flagged by American government officials as a national security threat.
Huawei, one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world, is a pivotal part of China’s efforts to gain influence abroad. However, United States legislatures and lawmakers have long viewed the company as a potential threat and have recommended that U.S.-based carriers avoid buying the network gear it manufacturers. The Huawei deal, according to Facebook, is becoming more limited this month. However, it will not be eliminated completely.
“Huawei is the third-largest mobile manufacturer globally and its devices are used by people all around the world, including in the United States,” explained Francisco Varela, Facebook’s vice president of mobile partnerships. “Facebook along with many other U.S. tech companies have worked with them and other Chinese manufacturers to integrate their services onto these phones.”
All four agreements will remain in effect, in fact, amid an investigation focused on the deals. Facebook has also shared its data with Samsung, Apple, BlackBerry, and Amazon as part of its effort to push more mobile users into the social media game prior to the creation of the stand-alone Facebook app that is highly compatible with smartphones.
The purpose of the contracts is to get some important features from the providers, such as user address books, its infamous “like” button, and status updates. These things wouldn’t have been possible without connecting with the tech companies. The contracts, however, also allow sharing detailed information on social media users as well as their friends, including political party and religious preference, education history, and relationship status.
Facebook has been banned from use in China since 2009 and Mark Zuckerberg has worked hard to regain solid footing there. Many believe this is why the company has aggressively defended its relationship with the Chinese tech companies, and why it has maintained a contract with Huawei despite security concerns.
Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican who leads the Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Trade Commission, is investigating Facebook to determine whether these agreements violate a decree entered into with the commission in 2011. The Senator said, “Facebook is learning hard lessons that meaningful transparency is a high standard to meet.”
“I look forward to learning more about how Facebook ensured that information about their users was not sent to Chinese servers,” said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
Facebook doesn’t seem to see why its business decisions are such a big deal. “All Facebook’s integrations with Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo, and TCL were controlled from the get-go — and Facebook approved everything that was built,” said Francisco Varela, a Facebook vice president. “Given the interest from Congress, we wanted to make clear that all the information from these integrations with Huawei was stored on the device, not on Huawei’s servers.”