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Keep An Eye On Facebook's Moves To Expand Its Collection Of Financial Data About Its Users

Facebook logo On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the social media giant had approached several major banks to share their detailed financial information about consumers in order, "to boost user engagement." Reportedly, Facebook approached JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and U.S. Bancorp. And, the detailed financial information sought included debit/credit/prepaid card transactions and checking account balances.

The Reuters news service also reported about the talks. The Reuters story mentioned the above banks, plus PayPal and American Express. Then, in a reply Facebook said that the Wall Street Journal news report was wrong. TechCrunch reported:

"Facebook spokesperson Elisabeth Diana tells TechCrunch it’s not asking for credit card transaction data from banks and it’s not interested in building a dedicated banking feature where you could interact with your accounts. It also says its work with banks isn’t to gather data to power ad targeting, or even personalize content... Facebook already lets Citibank customers in Singapore connect their accounts so they can ping their bank’s Messenger chatbot to check their balance, report fraud or get customer service’s help if they’re locked out of their account... That chatbot integration, which has no humans on the other end to limit privacy risks, was announced last year and launched this March. Facebook works with PayPal in more than 40 countries to let users get receipts via Messenger for their purchases. Expansions of these partnerships to more financial services providers could boost usage of Messenger by increasing its convenience — and make it more of a centralized utility akin to China’s WeChat."

There's plenty in the TechCrunch story. Reportedly, Diana's statement said that banks approached Facebook, and that it already partners:

"... with banks and credit card companies to offer services like customer chat or account management. Account linking enables people to receive real-time updates in Facebook Messenger where people can keep track of their transaction data like account balances, receipts, and shipping updates... The idea is that messaging with a bank can be better than waiting on hold over the phone – and it’s completely opt-in. We’re not using this information beyond enabling these types of experiences – not for advertising or anything else. A critical part of these partnerships is keeping people’s information safe and secure."

What to make of this? First, it really doesn't matter who approached whom. There's plenty of history. Way back in 2012, a German credit reporting agency approached Facebook. So, the financial sector is fully aware of the valuable data collected by Facebook.

Second, users doing business on the platform have already given Facebook permission to collect transaction data. Third, while Facebook's reply was about its users generally, its statement said "no" but sounded more like a "yes." Why? Basically, "account linking" or the convenience of purchase notifications is the hook or way into collecting users' financial transaction data. Existing practices, such as fitness apps  and music sharing, highlight the existing "account linking" used for data collection. Whatever users share on the platform allows Facebook to collect that information.

Fourth, the push to collect more banking data appears at best poorly timed, and at worst -- arrogant. Facebook is still trying to recover and regain users' trust after 87 million persons were affected by the massive data breach involving Cambridge Analytica. In May, the new Commissioner at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggested stronger enforcement on tech companies, like Google and Facebook. Facebook has stumbled as its screening to identify political ads by politicians has incorrectly flagged news sites. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn't help matters with his bumbling comments while failing to explain his company's stumbles to identify and prevent fake news.

Gary Cohn, President Donald Trump's former chief economic adviser, sharply criticized social media companies, including Facebook, for allowing fake news:

"In 2008 Facebook was one of those companies that was a big platform to criticize banks, they were very out front of criticizing banks for not being responsible citizens. I think banks were more responsible citizens in 2008 than some of the social media companies are today."

So, it seems wise to keep an eye on Facebook as it attempts to expand its data collection of consumers' financial information. Fifth, banks and banking executives bear some responsibility, too. A guest post on Forbes explained (highlighted text added):

"Whether this [banking] partnership pans or not, the Facebook plans are a reminder that banks sit on mountains of wealth much more valuable than money. Because of the speed at which tech giants move, banks must now make sure their clients agree on who owns their data, consent to the use of them, and understand with who they are shared. For that, it is now or never... In the financial industry, trust between a client and his provider is of primary importance. You can’t sell a customer’s banking data in the same way you sell his or her internet surfing behavior. Finance executives understand this: they even see the appropriate use of customer data as critical to financial stability. It is now or never to define these principles on the use of customer data... It’s why we believe new binding guidelines such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act are welcome, even if they have room for improvement... A report by the US Treasury published earlier this week called on Congress to enact a federal data security and breach notification law to protect consumer financial data. The principles outlined above can serve as guidance to lawmakers drafting legislation, and bank executives considering how to respond to advances by Facebook and other big techs..."

Consumers should control their data -- especially financial data. If those rules are not put in place, then consumers have truly lost control of the sensitive personal and financial information that describes them. What are your opinions?

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