When you download and open a new app, it's now standard practice to be presented with two options: Connect to Facebook or manually create an account by entering information such as a username and email.
Facebook is by far the faster, easier entry point, but it comes with a serious catch: Whenever you link your Facebook account to a third party app, you're giving that app permission to access information from some part of your profile. This weekend, The New York Times reported on a high profile instance of permission granting gone awry.
Using a misleading third party app, voter profiling company Cambridge Analytica obtained information on over 50 million Facebook users. The app, which reportedly masqueraded under vague, academic pretenses, asked for permission to connect to Facebook. According to the Times, Cambridge Analytica, which has been linked to the Trump campaign, used the information on user identities and 'likes' to target voters on social media.
The scenario has implications for future elections, but is also a good time to refresh your knowledge about how your data is being used when you connect an app to your Facebook profile. Ahead, some answers to common questions.
What is — & isn't — allowed by third party apps?
Okay, but does Facebook moderate third party apps?
All apps that ask for detailed information about Facebook users are required to go through an app review process where they must justify why that information is necessary for the app. Facebook characterizes "detailed information" as anything other than a user's friends, public profile, and email. Approval is only granted if apps can show that the information they are requested will be directly used.
How did the app in the Cambridge Analytica story slip through the cracks?
The app in question, created by data scientist Aleksandr Kogan, was created in 2014, before Facebook enforced new rules preventing developers from obtaining information about users' friends. This raises serious questions about what data third party apps approved pre-2014 might still have on Facebook users.
Kogan's app violated multiple terms from Facebook's Platform Policy, including one that expressly forbirds providing data taken from Facebook to another third party which, in this case, was Cambridge Analytica. Facebook has suspended both Kogan and Cambridge Analytica, and says it requested all remaining data be removed from the company's servers. However, it is unclear if the data has actually been deleted, which is why Facebook is launching an audit of Cambridge Analytica.
How can I control the information a third party all has access to?
You can change the permissions you have given a third party app at any time. Go to Facebook, and select Apps from the left hand menu. There, you'll see a list of all apps that currently have access to your Facebook account. Hover your mouse over an app and click "edit settings", indicated by the pencil icon. Uncheck any information that you don't want the app to access.
This is also where you go to delete an app's connection to Facebook — click on the "x" to the right of "edit settings." The downside is that if you've already connected to a third party app, the company will have the information you chose to share. In that case, Facebook also encourages users to email app developers directly to request that their information be removed.
What should you consider before linking your Facebook account to a third party app?
When you download an app, you usually want to start using it right away. Even though it can be tempting to skip reading the fine print, pause for a moment.
"Make sure you’re comfortable sharing that specific information; some apps will ask for your birthday, phone number, [and so on]," Feras Alhlou, the co-founder of analytics consulting company E-Nor, told Refinery29 over email. "What you agree to on that permissions page is legally binding. It may seem like a daunting task, but it’s crucial to be extra vigilant in the digital age."
While it's likely that Facebook will enforce even stricter policies for developers seeking permission to data after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, it's important look over the apps you're currently allowing to access your data. See what information they have — and ask yourself if you're okay with them having it. If you aren't, take steps to remove it.