Business

RBC disputes report that it had access to users' Facebook messages

The Royal Bank of Canada is disputing a report in the New York Times that says the bank, along with many other companies, had the ability to read, write and delete users' messages on Facebook's messaging platform.

Bank listed in New York Times report that outlines 'intrusive' access given to corporations

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., met with U.S. lawmakers during the summer, but was roundly criticized for failing to do the same at a hearing by British and Canadian parliamentarians into the Cambridge Analytica fiasco this past fall. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The Royal Bank of Canada is disputing a report in the New York Times that says the  bank, along with many other companies, had the ability to read, write and delete users messages on Facebook's messaging platform.

The report, published in the New York Times on Tuesday is based on hundreds of pages of internal documents obtained by the paper, and corroborating interviews with dozens of employees.

CBC News has not been able to independently confirm the veracity of the documents, but according to the Times they outline myriad ways the social media giant gave access to users' data to corporations on the platform, even as it was pledging to crack down on privacy breaches.

The report alleges that Facebook allowed companies to see the names of a user's entire friends list without permission, and in some cases gave them access to users' private messages. In other cases, companies could get access to other forms of personal information such as contact information from a massive pool of Facebook accounts.

All in all, the report says more than 150 different companies, primarily in the technology field, were given access to reams of data about Facebook users, without the users' knowledge or permission.

Facebook disputes the allegations that it gave any companies carte blanche to access user data, telling CBC News in a statement that its corporate partners "don't get to ignore people's privacy settings, and it's wrong to suggest that they do."

Facebook data infographic (Scott Galley/CBC)

"Over the years, we've partnered with other companies so people can use Facebook on devices and platforms that we don't support ourselves," Facebook's Steve Satterfield, director of privacy and public policy said.

"Unlike a game, streaming music service, or other third-party app, which offer experiences that are independent of Facebook, these partners can only offer specific Facebook features and are unable to use information for independent purposes."

"Partnerships are one area of focus and, as we've said, we're winding down the integration partnerships that were built to help people access Facebook," Satterfield said.

The New York Times report alleges the Royal Bank, Canada's largest company, had the ability to read, write and delete users' private messages, as well as to see information on all participants on a thread.

But the bank disputes the suggestion that it ever had the ability to view users' private messages — much less that it could send or delete them.

"RBC's use of the Facebook platform was limited to the development of a service that enabled clients to facilitate payment transactions to their Facebook friends," the bank told CBC News in a statement, noting the launch of a program in late 2013 that allowed the banks clients to send money to each other via Facebook's messenging service.

Facebook admitted that nearly 90 million Americans were shown misleading political content that they shouldn't have been shown in the 2016 election. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

"As part of our security and fraud protocols, we needed to uniquely identify the recipient of funds and payments to securely process the transaction and deliver the notification," RBC spokesman AJ Goodman said.

"We did not have the ability to see users' messages. We decommissioned the service in 2015 and our limited access, which was used strictly to enable our clients' payments, ended at that time."

The new allegations against Facebook come against the backdrop of increased scrutiny about the social media giant, which is facing continual and growing criticism about its lax attitudes toward safeguarding privacy of its 2 billion users worldwide.

Earlier this year, founder Mark Zuckerberg faced tough questions from U.S. lawmakers over the Cambridge Analytica scandal after it was revealed that more than 87 million Americans viewed misleading "fake news" about candidates during the 2016 U.S. election because of the level of access that Facebook gave to the now defunct company.

Zuckerberg was criticized by Canadian and British lawmakers last month when he failed to even show up for a hearing into the matter in London.

The New York Times report also details ways that various technology companies who ostensibly compete with Facebook were granted unprecedented access to its users data, including Yahoo, Netflix, Microsoft, Amazon, Spotify and Pandora.

"At no time did we access people's private messages on Facebook, or ask for the ability to do so," Netflix told CBC News in a statement.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.