Leaked confidential documents reveal that Facebook had plans to use its Android application to develop location-aware products and gain insights about rival firms. The documents are part of a larger set of files previously seized by the UK Parliament, and Marne Lynn Levine, the vice president for global public policy at Facebook back in 2012, noted in an email that the social media giant planned to gather vast location data to develop location-aware feature phone products. Facebook intended to match information about people's whereabouts with nearest base stations of their carriers. It doesn't appear like those plans materialized but what saw them dropped is still unclear.
Furthermore, the documents reveal that rival companies were also a target of Facebook’s information-gathering practices. The report alleges that the social media giant had plans to monitor other tech firms with the hopes of gaining competitive advantage. For example, Facebook wanted to collect information about how rival applications used some of the functions offered by the social networking service like cameras and messages. Moreover, the Internet giant also gathered data on whether users downloaded and bought mobile applications from outside of the Google Play Store.
Aside from the information gathering practices, the documents also show that Facebook made it easier for advertisers to target specific audiences in an attempt to increase revenue. The company first relaxed its policy towards advertisements for dating sites and applications, although it wanted to expand this feature to other interested parties, including political advertisers.
Background: Facebook has been facing criticism over privacy issues within the past year, with the largest issue it faced being the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Even in recent weeks, there have been discoveries of more privacy violations committed by Facebook. Lately, Apple temporarily removed the social media giant from its program that allows developers to test its applications internally after the discovery of an application that monitors the online activities of selected users, which included minors as young as 13.
These concerns prompted governments around the world to pursue investigations and inquiries on the activities not only of Facebook but of social media firms and other internet giants in general. In the United Kingdom, a parliamentary committee wanted the government to set up a regulatory agency that will monitor the activities of Facebook as well as other social media firms. The committee also suggested that the UK government develop a code of conduct that social networking sites will have to follow, and violations of the code will be punishable with heavy fines. On the other side of the Atlantic, US Congress has repeatedly summoned tech firms about privacy issues, while the Federal Trade Commission may impose a multi-billion dollar fine on Facebook, which is significantly larger than the $22.5 million penalty that Google paid in 2012.
Impact: Additional details about Facebook’s user-tracking practices provided by the leaked documents will certainly not help a company that is already under intense scrutiny by regulators and non-government organizations around the world. Whether these further details affect the investigations led by government agencies is still not clear, although the discovery that Facebook is also monitoring other applications may put its partners at unease.