Investigation finds that Facebook is collecting and storing personal data

Your phone is reporting more to Facebook than you realize. The Wall Street Journal recently conducted an investigation that found that popular apps were sending extremely personal information - including whether or not a person was pregnant, houses they'd looked at to buy, and their heart rate - to Facebook, without the users' knowledge.

The investigation found that the most popular heart-rate app in Apple's App Store, Heart Rate: HR Monitor, sent the user's heart rate immediately to Facebook. They also found that Flo Health Inc.'s Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker let Facebook know when a user was having her period or if she was trying to get pregnant. Finally, they found that the app for Realtor.com not only told Facebook where houses that users' had looked at were located and how much they cost, but also which ones they favorited.

Data was collected even on users who did not have Facebook profiles.

All of this extremely personal data was collected via Facebook's analytics tool, which is specifically designed to collect and view data about users in order to target them with Facebook ads. Facebook says that it tells developers not to send "health, financial information or other categories of sensitive information" - but this case suggests that they don't monitor whether or not that's happening. It seems like Facebook only makes a change when they're called out for violating people's privacy.

The Wall Street Journal also found that, in some cases, not only were the apps collecting and sharing personal data, but they were telling users that they weren't. Flo Health's privacy policy, for example, states that it won't send "information regarding your marked cycles, pregnancy, symptoms, notes and other information that is entered by you and that you do not elect to share" to third-party vendors. And yet, they did exactly that.

Additionally, both Apple and Google have policies about which user information can be shared and how consent from the user should be carried out. Apple requires "prior user consent" from users and is pretty strict about third-party access. Google says they require that apps "disclose the type of parties to which any personal or sensitive user data is shared."

But, just as Facebook doesn't do a great job self-monitoring, neither do these tech behemoths. When they're called out in public or informed by a researcher, they usually take action. But if they were properly enforcing their own rules, this wouldn't happen.

And when you think about it, why would they? All three companies rely on ad sales for a major part of their revenue. The data collection tools that Facebook has developed in order to create more targeted ads are the most sophisticated the tech industry has ever seen. Facebook alone has made quite literally billions of dollars from ads. So where's the incentive to protect user privacy?

There simply isn't one. And while normally the recommendation for privacy-conscious people is to quit social media, this case exemplifies just how deep into tracking users Facebook is. Until rules and regulations change about this type of data collection - and those rules are actually enforced - this won't be the last story we publish about Facebook collecting sensitive information without people's knowledge or consent.

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