Facebook surveils users through its services and then offers their data to mobile carriers and smartphone makers for free, according to a report by The Intercept. The report, which is based on a review of a confidential Facebook document, claims that the social media giant patronises some 100 such firms in 50 countries by giving them access to surveillance data culled from users’ smartphones through ‘Actionable Insights’, one of its many services. The data Facebook gives its partners includes users’ past locations, interests and even social groups. Facebook gathers the information using both its native app and sister apps like Instagram and Messenger. The data has been used by cellular companies to gauge how they stack up against rivals, but also for more controversial purposes such as racial profiling to run targeted advertisements, the report says. 

Facebook gives away the data ‘to strengthen business relations’

The document provides location details of users that goes well beyond the realm of PIN-code-level accuracy, and narrows down their location to within a few metres, the report said. It presented the data in a “dashboard-style view” along with maps that entailed precise user locations down to the city and street level. A unnamed source familiar with the program told The Intercept that the data Facebook collects under Actionable Insights is offered to carriers for free to strengthen business relations. This means that Facebook can very easily claim that it doesn’t sell user data to rack up revenue. Because technically, it doesn’t.

Facebook’s cellular partners include the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile, which are among the largest carriers in the US. AT&T’s privacy policy openly states that it collects and stores information “about the websites you visit and the mobile applications you use on our networks”. Apart from the calling and texting oversight that the carrier enjoys, that encompasses almost everything that users do on their smartphones.

‘Actionable Insights’ was marketed as solution to poor connectivity

Facebook launched Actionable Insights in 2018, ostensibly to bring better connectivity and access to the unconnected. The program was marketed as a solution to weak data connections and low speeds across the world. The Intercept report, however, says that the confidential document clearly states that the program is actually meant for “enabling better businesses decisions” using “analytics tools.” The document also outlines how carriers can use the data collected by  Facebook’s app, which  parses it into eight subcategories based on the type of information. According to The Intercept, these categories include “use of video, demographics, location, use of Wi-Fi and cellular networks, personal interests, device information, and friend homophily.”