Facebook Broadsides Admiral over Access to User Data

westpac; marketing land; post online; deviantart
Facebook has intervened to prevent car insurance provider Admiral using people's Facebook profiles to judge whether they are eligible for discounted cover.

The move came on Tuesday, as Admiral was on the verge of launching a new service called 'firstcarquote', aimed at providing car insurance to young, first-time drivers. One of its features was an opt-in system whereby users could choose to allow Admiral to survey their Facebook profile, including posts they had made available to friends, in order to judge whether they may be eligible for discounts on their car insurance.

However, two hours before launch, Facebook stepped in, claiming the scheme was in violation of the site's privacy guidelines. Admiral has since released the app with reduced capacity. Users are now able to log into the app with their Facebook accounts, but the app itself will not be used by Admiral to scan users' profiles.

A Facebook spokesman told the BBC on Wednesday: 'Protecting the privacy of the people on Facebook is of utmost importance to us. We have clear guidelines that prevent information being obtained from Facebook from being used to make decisions about eligibility.' The Guardian quotes specifically Section 3.15 of Facebook's Platform Policy, which states Facebook's data should not be used to 'make decisions about eligibility, including whether to approve or reject an application or how much interest to charge on a loan.' It's not the only Facebook statute which limits the extent to which external bodies can collect user data from the site. Facebook's Pages Terms ban the use of automated data collection through various (and frighteningly named) means, including 'harvesting bots, robots, spiders or scrapers', unless such activities are approved by the site first. 

Farming imagery aside, this is an unusual move on Facebook's part. Although the company called Admiral's plans 'inappropriate', Facebook itself is notorious for its trigger-happy approach to data collection, having faced numerous lawsuits over the issue in the past, as well as general criticism for selling user data to external companies. What's more, Facebook is also known to be somewhat lax when it comes to the real-world application of its guidelines; this latest news comes within a week of revelations that it is possible for advertisers in the United States to 'blatantly' breach civil rights legislation through discriminatory targeting methods on the site. The move is made even stranger by the fact that Facebook is said to have known about the forthcoming app launch for months, yet waited until the eleventh hour to pull the plug. 

Whether it was the doing of a Silicon Valley Malcolm Tucker, perhaps we'll never know. What's for sure is that, at least for now, there's no reason to consider this as a change in Facebook's approach to data collection. Fundamentally, the huge platform is still harvesting information like a giant scraper robot spider (or whatever the kids call it nowadays). 

The move itself might even be an attempt by Facebook to keep the data on its site in its own hands: Admiral was about to get access to it for free - which could set quite the precedent for other companies wishing to do the same. This intervention, then, might just be a message to data-hungry external bodies: make no mistake, you'll have to pay for the privilege. 

But why so cynical? This might be good news after all. We just don't know. 

Meanwhile, it's probably the case that young drivers will still need to hand over the same personal information to Admiral, just through Admiral's other channels rather than Facebook; otherwise, the costs of non-discounted car insurance may simply be too great for some. Boy oh boy, we truly do live in the Information Age, eh? 

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