Analysts point to the possibility of a "multibillion-dollar fine" or "jail time," though no one really knows what’s being investigated here.
The great Facebook outage of March 2019 might seem like a welcome distraction to Facebook executives right about now. The New York Times dropped a bombshell report late Wednesday that Facebook is under a federal criminal investigation for oversharing users’ personal data with other large tech companies. The proof: A New York grand jury has "subpoenaed records from at least two prominent makers of smartphones and other devices" believed to be on the receiving end of gobs of our personal data that went beyond what the communicated privacy settings allowed.
Facebook has generated such a boggling volume of privacy scandals that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. (I believe they call this “scaling”?) This one relates to revelations last December that Facebook gave access to our private messages to Netflix and Spotify. But access to personal information may have actually been much broader, and personal data was also shared with fellow tech titans like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft.
And speaking of Apple, its CEO Tim Cook has made no secret of the animosity he feels toward Facebook and its data practices — remember when Apple shut off all of Facebook's internal apps in January? Good times. — and it seems all but certain that one of the "prominent makers of smartphones and other devices" subpeonaed in this probe is Apple.
The Times merely reports the existence of a criminal investigation by the Eastern District of New York U.S. Attorney’s Office. The paper does not say what the investigation is looking into, nor when it started. None of the attorney’s offices or tech companies commented on the record, except for Facebook’s vaguebooking statement seen above.
But the Times does note that the Federal Trade Commission is weighing the possibility of a “multibillion-dollar fine” over these data-sharing arrangements, and it’s certainly significant that Facebook is now in criminal charge territory.
“A criminal investigation allows prosecutors to hold the threat of punishment, including jail time, over individuals at Facebook,” cyberlaw expert and professor Mark Bartholomew told Yahoo Finance. “This could result in even more embarrassing disclosures coming to light that would further tarnish Facebook’s already shaky public image.”
It’s fair to speculate that Facebook knew of the criminal probe before the Times reported it, as their statement acknowledges "we are cooperating with investigators." So it's clearly no coincidence that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook would evolve into a "privacy-focused platform," spouting many infosec buzzwords but providing little detail on what the heck that would actually mean. That strategy has more or less worked to keep Facebook’s valuation in the hundreds of billions. But now that possible criminal charges are looming, the Facebook “family of apps” may not be one big, happy family for much longer.
Also, get out the popcorn if Tim Cook gets called to testify.