Facebook attacked over app that reveals period dates of its users

By Jamie Doward and Raj Soni

Facebook is battling fresh controversy on both sides of the Atlantic amid claims that it has been receiving highly personal data from third-party apps.

The swirl of bad news around the company comes after its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was criticised for meeting the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, having refused to appear before an influential parliamentary committee in Westminster.

The meeting came amid speculation that the government may soon publish a white paper potentially paving the way for an independent social media regulator.

But the Observer has been told that a row is brewing over how the regulator should be funded. A proposal to hit the social media companies with a levy has alarmed some in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) who want to encourage tech investment in the UK. Others believe the levy should be applied to a broader range of tech firms, including the likes of Amazon. There are also questions over whether the media regulator, Ofcom, should oversee the new regulator or whether it should stand alone.

On Friday, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that Facebook can receive information from numerous apps even if, in some cases, the user does not have a Facebook account. Of more than 70 popular apps tested by the Journal, it found at least 11 sent potentially sensitive information to Facebook.

These included the Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, which reportedly shared with Facebook when users were having their periods or when they were trying to become pregnant. Facebook said that it required apps to tell users what information was shared with it and that it “prohibits app developers from sending us sensitive data”.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, called on its departments of state and financial services to “immediately investigate” what he called a clear invasion of consumer privacy. Last week, the UK parliament’s DCMS committee issued a scathing report calling for tougher privacy rules for Facebook and other tech firms. Zuckerberg has rejected the committee’s requests for him to appear before it. But last week he met Wright at his company’s Silicon Valley HQ to discuss tackling harmful online content.

“There is a good understanding that the UK government wants to keep its citizens safe online and will be putting in place structures that no longer rely on self-regulation,” Wright said afterwards.

But Labour MP Ian Lucas, a member of the committee, was critical of the meeting. “I too would like to meet Mark Zuckerberg, but not for a chat – to ask real questions about all the issues we’ve raised,” Lucas said. “We have a lot of questions. I accept that Jeremy Wright needs to speak to the tech giants but I think it’s a question of the tone he adopts.

“The thing about Jeremy Wright is that he’s not really going to say boo to a goose.”

Criticisms of Facebook’s attitude towards its users’ privacy exploded a year ago following revelations in the Observer that the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica accessed the data of some 87 million of its users without consent.

Meanwhile documents posted online on Friday have raised further privacy questions. About 60 pages of unedited exhibits from a lawsuit between Facebook and Six4Three, an app developer, were posted anonymously on the GitHub site.

In one email, former Facebook vice-president Michael Vernal appeared to discuss a serious issue with a third-party app. Vernal apparently warned: “If Mark [Zuckerberg] had accidentally disclosed earnings ahead of time because a platform app violated his privacy … literally, that would have basically been fatal for Login/Open Graph/etc,” a reference to Facebook developer apps.

Facebook responded in a statement: “Like the other documents that were cherrypicked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context.”